It is the first time in several seasons that Spain’s premier competition is being contested by three teams right until the end, and it is making for an intriguing spectacle. In what is a pleasant change from the norm of a two-way battle between Real Madrid and Barcelona, Atletico Madrid have won many admirers this season with their impassioned displays. This weekend’s results have left the race for the title delicately poised as three teams are separated by just four points. Who has the mettle and the skill to overcome the final hurdle and come out on top?
Currently leading the pack are the surprise package of the season, Atletico Madrid. Their manager Diego Simeone has developed an effective play style which allows their key men to flourish. Diego Costa has stolen the limelight for his sheer weight of goals this campaign, but the energy and guile of Koke and Arda Turan in midfield and the ultra-consistent performances of Thibaut Courtouis between the sticks have been just as useful.
Their latest victory did however come at a cost. In the process of sliding in towards goal to force the ball home, Costa rapped his shin against the post and had to leave the pitch on a stretcher. Thankfully for the player and his team’s aspirations, the injury does not seem to be as serious as first feared. Rather than the possible long-term absence resulting from a break, it may well be limited to a severe gash on his shin. Simeone has allayed the worries somewhat by stating that he should regain fitness sooner rather than later, possibly in time for the Champions League first leg against Mourinho’s Chelsea. His return would be a massive boost for all associated with Atleti.
Currently in second position are their bitter rivals Real Madrid. They find themselves 3 points back and ready to pounce at the slightest opportunity. A major concern must be the recent emergence of Cristiano Ronaldo’s injury problems. What manifested itself initially as a minor muscular complaint in his left leg has since transpired to be something much more serious. Now contending with a knee issue, he has not been fit enough to feature in Real’s last 3 fixtures.
Recent press releases have indicated an expectation of a further fortnight on the side-lines, putting his appearance in the Copa del Rey final against Barcelona in serious jeopardy. There are further questions such as how quickly will he regain full fitness and could a rushed comeback aggravate another injury. It is at this most crucial period of the campaign that the world’s most expensive player; Gareth Bale, needs to truly step up to the plate and begin to repay that fee in earnest.
Another adaptation that Carlo Ancelotti may have to make to his line-up is to shift Di Maria away from the central role where he has proved highly effective, onto a flank. By picking up pockets of space, the tricky Argentinian has assisted many a goal in recent weeks, a mantle that may now have to be taken up by Isco. Confined to the bench for the majority of the season, fans have been pining to see him being given a chance and this may be his long-awaited opportunity.
The third horse in this particular race is the juggernaut that is Barcelona. It has been far from a vintage season this year, with Tata Martino’s side knocked out of the Champions League before the semi-final stage and far from convincing in league football. A fall from grace has been steadily growing in momentum and reached its lowest trough at the conclusion of the Neymar transfer debacle. An embargo on transfers is currently in place for two windows and the announcement of this has coincided with a drastic drop in form for the Catalan club.
Defeats in the last 2 months to Real Valladolid and Granada, and a Champions League exit over two legs at the hands of their title rivals Atletico have been costly for their trophy aspirations. Martino’s future is far from secure and he may well lose his job after less than 12 months at the helm. The problems have been relentless all year; first with Messi’s long-standing injury lay-off, followed by the emergence of the Neymar controversy, and now they have lost first choice ‘keeper Victor Valdes for the rest of the season. The effect on dressing room morale must have been substantial and after their most recent loss to Granada on Saturday, full-back Martin Montoya has revealed that the team are mentally “screwed up”. Quite a damning assessment for the Catalan giants.
One thing in Barcelona’s favour is that after their Champions League exit, focus can remain entirely on the league campaign, whereas the Madrid pair still have at least 2 more high pressure matches to contend with. Real face the seemingly unstoppable Bayern Munchen and Atletico have Mourinho’s Chelsea to contend with.
If results go with form in the remaining games of the season; and I expect this to be the case regardless of the problems and issues faced by each team, then the outcome of the championship should come down to the final fixtures. A massive tie will take place at the Camp Nou between Barca and Atletico. It is almost a certainty that Real Madrid will win at home to Espanyol, meaning that a defeat for Atletico at the hands of Barcelona will leave both Madrid clubs on equal points. Real have a significantly better goal difference; constituting to the equivalent of another point.
Should Barcelona and Real both win, the title would return to the Bernabeu. This would be quite a complex situation for Barca fans to contend with; their team’s victory resulting in the title heading to their most bitter of rivals. Due to this possible clouding of commitment and Atletico’s unrelenting effort and team spirit, I believe that they will achieve a positive result at the Camp Nou on that nerve-wracking final day, and bring back the Spanish title to the Vicente Calderon for the first time in 18 years.