La Liga has yet again delivered as one of the most exciting divisions in Europe this year.
Viewers watched on with glee as usual suspects FC Barcelona and Real Madrid suffered false starts and then came crawling out of the blocks, while underdogs Atletico Madrid sped into the distance like Roadrunner blitzing Wile E. Coyote, leaving the giants coughing up their dust.
While one team building a seemingly unassailable lead doesn’t sound like the thriller we’re proposing, it’s always far more gripping when the leaders are not one of Los Blancos or La Blaugrana. And even as we were naively enjoying Los Rojiblancos’ early dominance, a sense of trepidation lingered throughout the premature celebrations.
Those fears became reality in December 2020, when Madrid turned Atleti over in a convincing 2-0 victory, as the leaders squandered the chance to open a nine-point gap over their bitter rivals, instead allowing Zinedine Zidane’s side to narrow their deficit to three.
Diego Simeone’s men took solace in their several games in hand, but their form has dipped dramatically since the turn of the year, and with Barça finally putting together a run of positive results, the top three are now separated by only five points.
Sunday afternoon will hand Atleti the opportunity to exact revenge on rivals Madrid in the derby Madrileño, and possibly inflict a fatal blow on los Merengues’ title defence. Defeat for the current champions would see them fall eight points behind los Colchoneros – a total which could be increased to an almost surpassable 11 points, should Atleti win their current game in hand.
It is undoubtedly a fate that Zidane will be desperate to avoid – being effectively knocked out of the title race by their neighbours could be the all important nail hammered into his coffin come the end of the season.
The major problem for the Frenchman is that Madrid’s experienced and star-studded squad is finally beginning to show its age.
34-year-old Sergio Ramos has missed the last month of action after undergoing knee surgery, 33-year-old Karim Benzema is facing a race against time to return from his own injury issues, and 32-year-old Marcelo has lost the consistency needed to thrive at the highest level.
In fact, this criticism could be directed at a number of Madrid’s starting lineup. The hunger and intensity needed to win every game has been missing this year, and the fact that they can produce inspired team performances against their biggest rivals only highlights their lack of focus when dropping points against the minnows.
This group of players are close to making their exits from the European stage, and they are on the decline. Plus, once you’ve won everything there is to win in the game, it’s difficult to recreate and maintain that intensity week in, week out.
It felt as if last season’s title-winning heroics were the result of one final push from this collective band of brothers, who then desperately needed a changing of the guard to come to fruition this year. That hasn’t happened.
There can be no doubts however, that when they step out onto the Wanda Metropolitano turf, Madrid will be as fired up as they were for their first ever major final.
As for Atleti, the cracks are beginning to show as the weight of their transition from underdogs to champions elect has caused their knees to buckle somewhat. Simeone’s warriors dropped vital points to Celta Vigo and Levante (twice) in the month of February, leaving their supporters glancing nervously over their shoulders at the gaining coyotes.
But a victory over Villarreal has calmed those nerves, and provided the perfect remedy ahead of this potentially season-defining clash in their glorious home. Not to mention, a certain Luis Suarez will be out to ruin an old enemy’s day – as is so often the case.
And then there’s Barcelona, quietly climbing back into the top three, while all the attention falls on their humiliating antics off the field. Ronald Koeman will be encouraging his stars to win their game against Osasuna on Saturday, so they can put their feet up and watch the Madrid derby while sitting only two points behind Atleti in the table.
Barça are in crisis, but the impending arrival of a new president and the scent of a title race could spark them back into life and really put the pressure on Atleti to keep up their table-topping form.
With a third of the season left, there is everything to play for in Spain, and the stakes have never been higher for all three giants. Let the games begin.