For three straight rounds, neither Barcelona, Atlético Madrid nor Real Madrid have blinked in a La Liga title race that is going right to the wire. Since Barcelona’s spectacular collapse to throw away a nine-point lead at the top of the Primera Division, the order has been maintained. Barcelona still sit level on points with Atlético Madrid, ahead only on the superiority of the teams’ head-to-head record, while Real Madrid are just a single point back. With all three teams playing at the same time (11 a.m. EDT, on Sunday) in the penultimate round of fixtures, the drama is set to ratchet up yet further.
Barcelona (vs. Espanyol)
Purely in terms of the two teams’ league position and their recent head-to-head record at the Camp Nou, this should be no contest. Espanyol sit 14th in La Liga, only five points clear of the relegation zone and have lost on their last seven visits to the Camp Nou. But Barcelona will surely not have wanted to be facing a local derby at this stage of the season.
While Espanyol are the poor relatives of the city, they will have added motivation to try and derail Barcelona’s title hopes. And neither club will likely need reminding of when the local rivals clashed at the Camp Nou, also in the penultimate round of the fixtures, in 2007. Then a last minute goal from Espanyol striker Raul Tamudo secured a 2-2 draw that allowed Real Madrid to clinch the title. Particularly with Barcelona not having a Champions League semifinal to distract them and having all their major players fit and available, they should be far too strong this time around. But, in a derby, you just never know.
Prediction: Barcelona 2-0 Espanyol
Atlético Madrid (at Levante)
Atlético’s seven match winning streak and their run of six games without conceding a goal came to an end in Munich on Tuesday, but Diego Simeone’s men still held firm to reach the Champions League final. While they have scored just a single goal in their last five matches, Atlético remain such a tough team to play against.
With a Champions League final upcoming in three weeks’ time, Simeone may be tempted to give some players a breather, notably Antoine Griezmann. Yet the closeness of the title race and the opportunity to claim an incredible double means Simeone is likely to continue to field a consistent lineup. Against a Levante side bottom of La Liga and with their relegation already confirmed, even a slightly weary Atlético should be too good.
Prediction: Levante 0-2 Atlético Madrid
Real Madrid (vs. Valencia)
Real Madrid came through a tough challenge last week against Real Sociedad to win a 10th successive La Liga match and keep the pressure on the top two. It was a similarly battling, if not wholly impressive, performance on Wednesday to beat Manchester City and seal a place against Atlético Madrid in the Champions League final.
There is little doubt that for Madrid the Champions League is the priority, something Zinedine Zidane suggested last week when leaving out Toni Kroos, Marcelo, Dani Carvajal and Pepe from his lineup against Real Sociedad. More changes will be following on Sunday. Gareth Bale and Keylor Navas are both set to miss out through injuries picked up against Manchester City. Meanwhile, Karim Benzema and Casemiro are back in training, although it remains to be seen if they will be risked. Valencia have nothing to play for and shouldn’t pose an undue hurdle for Madrid, although they did manage a 2-2 draw earlier this season in what proved to be Rafa Benitez’s final game in charge.
Prediction: Real Madrid 3-1 Valencia