With only three rounds of matches left in La Liga, Spanish titans Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid will take the field aiming to garner what could be a decisive advantage in the race for the title. Just one point separates La Liga’s top three in what has, unexpectedly, become the tightest title race in Europe’s top leagues.
And since Barcelona’s remarkable collapse, taking one point from four games, the teams have held steady, with Atlético Madrid behind the champions only on their head-to-head record, while Real Madrid remain a single point back.
All three clubs know that any slip-up is likely to prove fatal to their hopes. Here’s the challenge awaiting each of the contenders on Saturday.
Barcelona (at Real Betis, 2:30 p.m. EDT)
The end of their ambitions to become the first team to win back-to-back Champions League titles, courtesy of a defeat to Atlético Madrid two weeks ago, was unquestionably a major blow. But it could very well help their chances of retaining the Primera Division crown.
It is surely no coincidence that Barcelona’s slump came after Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar all traveled to South America for intense World Cup qualifiers. The prolific forward trio came back looking jaded and performing below their best. Now, after beginning to get their groove back in 8-0 and 6-0 victories over Deportivo La Coruna and Sporting Gijon, respectively, they have had a rare full week off to recuperate and prepare for a trip to Real Betis.
The club from Seville sit 13th in La Liga, and have won just two of their last seven games, although they have been stronger at home, losing just one of their last eight games at the Benito Villamarín. It may not be as comfortable as it has been in their last two matches for Barcelona, but they should still emerge with a win.
Prediction: Celta Vigo 0-2 Barcelona
Atlético Madrid (vs. Rayo Vallecano, 12:15 p.m. EDT)
After a draining night against Bayern Munich in the first leg of their Champions League semifinal on Wednesday, Diego Simeone’s side will be pleased not to face any travel on their return to La Liga. They will be happier still to be going up against a Rayo Vallecano side that have not won on the road in their last 17 matches dating back to last September.
Atlético Madrid, meanwhile, have been machine-like both home and away in recent weeks. A 1-0 victory over Bayern Munich made it five wins on the bounce for Los Colchoneros, all without conceding a goal. On paper, of all the three La Liga contenders, an Atlético side with the least resources would be the likeliest to be afflicted by fatigue down the stretch. However, Simeone has negotiated a dual pursuit of La Liga and the Champions League two years ago, when he won the former and came within two minutes of triumphing in the latter. And he has a deeper squad now than he did then.
With Simeone likely to freshen up his team just a little on Saturday, by making it slightly more expansive, Atlético must be favorites to get past a Rayo Vallecano side fresh from relinquishing a 2-0 lead to another city rival, Real Madrid, last week.
Prediction: Atlético Madrid 2-0 Rayo Vallecano
Real Madrid (at Real Sociedad, 10 a.m. EDT)
Real Madrid will be the first contender to take to the field on Saturday, when looking to lay down a marker in their afternoon kickoff at Real Sociedad’s Anoeta Stadium. Chasing just their second league title in eight seasons, Zinedine Zidane’s side have hit top form at the right time, winning their last nine La Liga encounters by an aggregate score of 33-7.
They were given a major scare last time out, however, when falling 2-0 behind inside 14 minutes at Rayo Vallecano. And they also faced a tough encounter on Tuesday, when coming away with a goalless result in the first leg of their Champions League semifinal against Manchester City. They will also have to cope with being shorthanded for their trip to Sociedad. Cristiano Ronaldo missed the encounter in Manchester with a thigh injury, while Karim Benzema started but was withdrawn at halftime. Madrid are hopeful both will be fit in time for the second leg next week, but they will definitely be absent on Saturday.
With their always being more than a suspicion that Real Madrid prioritize the Champions League over La Liga, Zidane could make further changes to his squad at the Anoeta. And, while Real Sociedad may be missing the suspended Carlos Vela and have taken just one point from their last three matches, their last victory did come against Barcelona three weeks ago. On Saturday, they could deal an even bigger blow to Real Madrid’s title hopes.
Prediction: Real Sociedad 1-1 Real Madrid