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LaLiga: Title race reaches fever pitch with all four contenders up against the other

·10 min read

Manchester City and Bayern Munich are on the brink. Inter Milan have broken an 11-year barren run. But it is all to play for in Spain and France among the top-five European leagues. Six points separate the top four in both LaLiga and Ligue 1. The last time four teams were in the running at closing stages of the Spanish top division was 1983/84. This time, the race seemed to be all but over in January and yet it could have been even closer right now had Sevilla won on Monday.

Here's how things stand: Atletico Madrid 76 points, Real Madrid 74 points, Barcelona 74 points and Sevilla 70 points. Four games left to play. The first of which comes this weekend which incidentally, and rather dramatically, pits these four against another: Barcelona are at home to Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid host Sevilla. If this title race needed more drama, the fixture list has provided it.

The crucial question is, will this weekend decide the title race? Barcelona manager Ronald Koeman doesn't think so. "I don't think it is decisive because there will be three games left, but of course it is important. It is not decisive."

Former Sevilla striker Frederic Kanoute concurs that it won't be over this weekend but it will give an idea. "I think it will give an indication. Mathematically it's going to be early. We never know what's going to happen. It is crazy to see these two fixtures taking place this weekend. It's going to give a mental and psychological advantage to the ones who win this weekend," the LaLiga Ambassador said in a virtual interaction.

The run up has been pretty dramatic too: Real Madrid played out goalless draws against Getafe and Real Betis to lose their way. Atletico Madrid lost to Athletic Bilbao to hand the advantage to Barcelona. Koeman's side then blew a goal advantage to lose to Granada. Sevilla won seven of eight games before conceding a 90th minute winner against Athletic on Monday.

A look at all four clubs in the race for the title:

Atletico Madrid (34 matches played, 76 points)

Atletico Madrid are four points ahead of Barcelona at the top of LaLiga table. AP
Atletico Madrid are four points ahead of Barcelona at the top of LaLiga table. AP

Atletico Madrid are two points clear at the top coming into the final four games of the season. AP

Atletico Madrid were 11 points ahead at one stage. They were so good that they looked to be on course to reaching 100 points. In late January, Atleti had lost once in 19 games, winning 16. Barcelona and defending champions Real Madrid, in comparison, had suffered four defeats. And then it all came crashing down.

The collapse hasn't been full-on. It has been a culmination of points dropped here and there, injuries playing a role, suspensions to crucial players €" including absence due to a betting ban on Kieran Tripper €" resulting in seven wins from 15 played. In this period, they've lost thrice €" once to Athletic with a 86th minute winner €" and more worryingly, five draws. They led in three of these draws only to have the three points snatched away by late equalisers against Celta Vigo and Real Madrid in 89th and 88th minutes respectively. It could have happened once again against Elche last week but for a missed penalty and chances being squandered by the Valencia-based club.

With focus firmly on the game on Sunday, at the Camp Nou, there are undertones of the 2013-14 season when Atleti needed a point at Barcelona on the final matchday and came away with a draw to seal the title. Diego Simeone, however, doesn't see this situation to be similar. "Then the title needed to be decided based on whoever won and for us two outcomes were favourable. Now there are more points available," he said on Friday.

The go-to statement in Spanish football is that "this game is a final". This, for a change, does feel like it. The winner gets a massive boost in the title race and possibly in the head-to-head, a defeat could severely hamper chances and a draw hands the opportunity in Real Madrid or Sevilla's hands.

Luis Suarez, who made an acrimonious exit from Barcelona in the summer, has dominated the headlines coming into it. The striker could make his first appearance against the former club and it's come at a huge moment for both teams. The Uruguayan was in prolific form in the first half of the season before injury hit. Since the return, he's mustered only three goals in 11 games to take his tally to 19 from 28.

"How hard it's going to be to not share every day with you; it's going to be strange to see you in a different shirt, even more to play against you," Lionel Messi had written when Suarez left. And here we are, with a huge game as the first between these two friends.

Fixtures remaining: vs Barcelona (A), vs Real Sociedad (H), vs Osasuna (H), vs Real Valladolid (A)

Real Madrid (34 matches played, 74 points)

Real Madrid's Champions League exit shows change is now essential at the club. AP
Real Madrid's Champions League exit shows change is now essential at the club. AP

Real Madrid come into the Sevilla game with ego bruised after Champions League exit by Chelsea. AP

As Atletico dropped points and saw their lead dwindle, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Sevilla quietly made ground. On the day Atletico boldened their lead at the top, 30 January, Real Madrid threw away their lead to lose to Levante. Since then, Real have gone 14 games unbeaten with four draws.

That unbeaten run in all competitions came crashing down at Stamford Bridge in mid-week in the second leg of the Champions League semi-final. The 3-1 aggregate loss could or should have been bigger in favour of Chelsea. The mediocrity of the performance once again highlighted the toothless attack and once again Zinedine Zidane's reluctance to switch things around.

"I think if we look at the players mentality, when you lose a game like that, the thought in a player's head is 'I want to play the next game, I want to get into the next game to compete to win to prove that happened was an accident that that we want to fight for whatever title we have in front of us'. You have to acknowledge that you ran out of gas, Chelsea had the muscle. I'm the type of person that I believe the mind dictates the body. And when these players take the pitch, Sevilla won't have an easy game," said former Valencia and Barcelona player Gaizka Mendieta who is a LaLiga Ambassador.

He added that it made the role of Zidane even more important to motivate his team to pick up and regain focus. "You need to motivate them, lift the mood, the spirit, because I know you want to play the next game but it's in the back of your head that you've been knocked out of the Champions League, that the chance to be in the final has been taken away from you. So, it's more about the mindset and how to prepare for these games."

Fixtures remaining: vs Sevilla (H), vs Granada (A), vs Athletic Bilbao (A), vs Villarreal (A)

Barcelona (34 matches played, 74 points)

If Atletico Madrid took the honours for the first half of the season, Barcelona should for the second. In 2021, Barcelona have picked up 49 points €" most in the league and eight points more than Atletico Madrid. They went on an unbeaten run that began on 14 December and continued until 11 April. In this period, Barca won 16 from 19 games €" 48 points from a possible 57 €" as Koeman finally started to come good and instil his ideas into the team despite off-pitch chaos, presidential elections, controversies and injuries.

Disappointment in the Super Cup final and Champions League dented Koeman's chances to stay for the long term, especially with Xavi Hernandez considered a replacement. But if the Dutchman can put two trophies on his CV in a chaotic first season, it would make the decision difficult for the newly elected board.

Lionel Messi has been pivotal in this run. The only player with a better goals-per-game ratio than Suarez is Messi. The Atletico Madrid man has 0.79 goals per 90 minutes which is second to Messi's 0.92. Since the turn of the year, Messi has scored 21 goals in 28 games and taken his tally to 28 goals to lead the Pichichi race.

"If Messi is switched on, motivated, clinical, it is vital for Barcelona, especially going forward. But it is also kind of contagious when you see that your captain, your leader is motivated in the way he is, and the way he influences the game. The rest just follow. And I think in that respect, Messi has been brilliant," said Mendieta who spent time on loan at Barcelona.

A win for Barcelona will give them the lead in the title race €" something Atletico Madrid have held on to since December. However, it would not necessarily be the best outcome for the club. With Atletico Madrid trailing in the title race, Real Madrid and Barcelona could potentially finish equal on points. In such a scenario, Real come out on top on account of a better head-to-head (Los Blancos won both Clasicos this season).

Barcelona haven't lost to Atletico Madrid at home since February 2006 when Pepe Murcia was in-charge of Colchoneros. Simeone has overseen his wards draw three and lose five in Barcelona. But the fiery coach is hopeful. "There's always the first time!" he said. In the first leg, Atletico won 1-0 at home for Barcelona's first league loss against the Madrid club in 21 games.

Fixtures remaining: vs Atletico Madrid (H), vs Levante (A), vs Celta Vigo (H), vs Eibar (A)

Sevilla (34 matches played, 70 points)

Away from the noise that is generated by the above three, Sevilla have largely gone about their business quietly. Julen Lopetegui's side don't have the resources and squad depth that the other three have yet contested for silverware. This calendar year, they've won 14 games from 20 played and 10 from 14 since the end of January €" the moment after which the title race changed gradually.

"We're going to keep on trying, we're going to fight in every game and we're going to Madrid next week to win," said Jesus Navas after the Athletic defeat.

Lopetegui returns to face Real Madrid but with a touchline ban. He received a fifth yellow card for protesting a penalty not given against Athletic Bilbao and will now, like Koeman, be barred from being on the sidelines.

Sevilla's last title came in 1945-46 when they played a draw with Barcelona in the decider to thwart the Catalans' chances who needed a win. Since then, they've been runners up twice and finished third twice in this century.

The odds are stacked heavily against Sevilla but an end to 74-year title drought 'would be crazy' as Kanoute put it. "It's going to be crazy. I would like to go to the city if they become champions. We've had a lot of success in the past, but unfortunately, we haven't had a LaLiga title in a long time. I remember in 2007-08, we were very close but we couldn't hold the rhythm until the end of the season. This year, it's very close. Unfortunately, the loss to Athletic makes it more complicated. But we still have hope."

Fixtures remaining: vs Real Madrid (A), vs Valencia (H), vs Villarreal (A), vs Deportivo Alaves (H)

Note: Tiebreaker in Spanish top division isn't goal difference but head-to-head. Keeping that in mind, Real Madrid hold the advantage over Atletico Madrid and Barcelona. Barcelona will come out on top over Sevilla. Lopetegui's men are even with Atletico Madrid.

Catch LaLiga action live and exclusive this weekend on Facebook Watch.

Also See: LaLiga: Antoine Griezmann brace fires Barcelona to victory over Villarreal

LaLiga: Lionel Messi double leads Barcelona to nail-biting win over Valencia

LaLiga: Barcelona boss Ronald Koeman to miss crucial games after two-match ban for referee 'disrespect'

Read more on Sports by Firstpost.

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