While the English Premier League has been the scene for the surprise story of the season, with Leicester City closing in on a remarkable title triumph, Spain’s La Liga is also throwing up its own remarkable title race. Indeed, it is simply the fact that there is a race for the title at all that has caused disbelief.
A little over two weeks ago, Barcelona appeared certainties to wrap up the championship. The Catalans held a nine-point lead over Atlético Madrid and a 10-point edge over Real Madrid. Odds makers had last year’s treble winners as 1-100 to retain their Primera Division crown. Even after Barcelona lost the Clásico it appeared nothing more than a morale-boost for Real Madrid.
Yet that defeat has proved the start of an astonishing collapse. After three straight defeats, Barcelona are level on points with Atlético and only one point ahead of Real Madrid. With five matches remaining, La Liga is set for a thrilling climax. Here’s how each of the challengers shape up.
The collapse of Luis Enrique’s side has been truly incredible. Prior to Real Madrid’s visit to the Camp Nou at the start of April, Barcelona had gone 39 matches unbeaten in all competitions. They have now lost four of their last five, including a defeat to Atlético Madrid that sent them crashing out of the Champions League. The reasons for the dramatic turnaround are not simple to pin down, but it is hard to look past the physical decline of their front three. Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez and Neymar had been unstoppable since last January, but they have been far from their sharpest since returning from pairs of World Cup qualifiers in South America prior to the Real Madrid match. The statistics make for a stark contrast. In the last five games in all competitions Barcelona’s forward trio have scored just three goals combined. In the previous five games they had found the net 13 times.
All is not lost, however. Barcelona hold the head-the head advantage over both Atlético and Real Madrid, meaning the title is still theirs to lose. Still, Wednesday’s trip to Deportivo La Coruna is now critical. Win that and the Camp Nou can breathe a huge sigh of relief, but anything less and the situation becomes truly critical. Their remaining schedule after that game is fairly kind, with the exception of a local derby against an Espanyol side who will relish the chance to inflict a knockout blow on their neighbors.
April 20: at Deportivo La Coruna
April 23: vs. Sporting Gijon
April 30: at Real Betis
May 8: vs. Espanyol
May 15: at Granada
No manager is better right now at upsetting the financial order than Diego Simeone. Having won La Liga against the odds in 2014, the club could now pull off arguably an even more remarkable triumph against a Barcelona team many considered one of the best sides of all time. The fact that they have also just ousted Barcelona from the Champions League quarterfinals can only boost confidence that they can now better the Catalans’ results over the final five matches.
They have certainly been impressive of late. Atlético’s defense remains near impenetrable, while Antoine Griezmann is providing the imagination in attack. And to the great credit of Simeone, even Fernando Torres is now on a scoring streak. What could be a hindrance, though, is the fact that they are still in the Champions League and face a huge semifinal against Bayern Munich. Given the intensity with which Atlético play, the games may begin to catch up with them. They also face a tough visit to fifth-placed Athletic Bilbao on Wednesday.
Atlético Madrid schedule
April 20: at Athletic Bilbao
April 23: vs. Malaga
April 30: vs. Rayo Vallecano
May 8: at Levante
May 15: vs. Celta Vigo
When Real Madrid lost to Atlético at the end of February, even manager Zinedine Zidane effectively conceded that their title hopes were over. Even after beating Barcelona, the celebrations felt more about the sheer pleasure of beating Barcelona and the boost it would give them in the Champions League rather than any sense that it had blown the title race back open. Real Madrid surely could not have foreseen they would be just a solitary point back with five games remaining.
Real Madrid’s form, though, is certainly sufficient to concern Barcelona. Zidane’s men have won their last seven league fixtures, and by an aggregate scoreline of 27-5. Crucially, Madrid’s front three of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema look in far better shape than their Barcelona counterparts at this stage of the season. Counting against Madrid, though, is that three of their final five games are away from home and the team has been considerably less impressive on the road than at the Bernabeu under Zidane. The visit of fourth-placed Villarreal to the Bernabeu on Wednesday promises to be far from straightforward either. Meanwhile, there is also always the sense for Real Madrid that the Champions League takes priority over La Liga. A semifinal against Manchester City may be a costly distraction.
Real Madrid schedule
April 20: vs. Villarreal
April 23: at Rayo Vallecano
April 30: at Real Sociedad
May 8: vs. Valencia
May 15: at Deportivo La Coruna
Prediction: Wednesday’s fixtures promise to be crucial to deciding the destination of the title, with Barcelona facing a mental test and Atlético and Real Madrid having challenging fixtures. If Barcelona can come through with a victory then they have to be strong favorites once again to go on and claim the crown, especially as, following this weekend, their players will have a full week in between fixtures to recuperate.