La Liga title race heads for a photo-finish

Atletico Madrid
Atletico Madrid players celebrate a goal against Real Betis. File photo: AFP

The La Liga is entering its final stages and the top three are still locked in an intense race for the title. Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid and Barcelona are all very much in contention and with only eight games each to go, it promises to be a tight finish. The season has been a very tumultuous one for most of the teams, with the absence of the usual vociferous and boisterous fans being one of the biggest issues. In a sport which is so universally loved and adored as football, fans play a big part in the performance of many teams and the silence of the stadiums can be quite a challenge for many players.

The past 16 years have seen the La Liga dominated by either Barcelona or Real for the most part with Atletico breaking the chain in 2013-14 season with a lone triumph. Atletico seemed to be primed for a repeat of that season, keeping a steady lead on the table since the start of the season. By January it seemed that Atletico would surely win the title, with the closest contenders, Real, 10 points below them. Yet now as the season draws to a close, the title could go any of three ways. The top three right now are only separated by one point each with the present standings putting Atletico at top with 67 points with Real and Barcelona right behind 66 and 65 points respectively.

There are many factors which have come up for the season to suddenly go from a decisive Atletico surge to the present three-way tie. One of the main factors being the recent dip in form of the Los Rojiblancos (The Red and Whites), with them being knocked out of the Champions League by Chelsea and then losing to Sevilla and drawing with Real Betis in the league. All this has led to the team dropping valuable points which were needed for them to solidify their position at the top. Their patchy form could be attributed to the loss of many players, including star striker Luis Suarez and Thomas Lemar. The recent draw with Real Betis also saw talisman Joao Felix as well as defender Kieran Trippier getting injured. The big question is whether Diego Simeone’s team can hold their ground and break Barcelona and Real's dominance over La Liga for the second time.

Kroos & Modric
Toni Kroos, left, and Luka Modric celebrate the former's goal against Barcelona in the El Clasico. File photo: AFP

Speaking of the heavyweights, the El Clasico between Real and Barcelona took place last week with Real winning yet again. The clash was a pivotal one for both the teams as it gave them a chance a go top of the table. Unfortunately for Barcelona, the result is starting to look familiar as they lost their third consecutive derby, with goals from Karim Benzema and Toni Kroos sealing the deal for Real. The Los Blancos (The Whites) are just riding on their spectacular rejuvenated form which has seen them going unbeaten in their last five La Liga matches and the title seems to be well within their grasp. Their clinical elimination of Liverpool in the Champions League quarterfinals is showing hints of the record-breaking team which won three consecutive Champions Leagues from 2015-16 to 2017-18.

Although Real have had a rough couple of years since, they seem to be slowly climbing back to the top. Zinedine Zidane’s mentality of playing every game as though it’s the final can be seen in his players as well and although they have been plagued by many injuries over the season, including star-signing Eden Hazard and Lucas Vasquez, Real are pushing ahead for the title.

Lionel Messi
Barcelona's fortunes depend heavily on Lionel Messi. File photo: Reuters

On the other hand, Barcelona seem to be slowly rebuilding after a very rough and confusing period. The return of Joan Laporta as the club president came as a relief to many due to the numerous problems with the previous management, including the alleged friction between star player Lionel Messi and former president Josep Bartomeu. The future of the Barca talisman is also in a state of disarray as Messi still hasn’t signed a contract renewing his stay at Camp Nou. The Argentine is having another fantastic individual year, racking up assists as well as goals. Yet his frustration due to his team’s performance is clear to see for many and the thirst for a few more trophies might lead him to look for new teams. Barcelona were knocked out even before the quarterfinals in the Champions League and although they have maintained a somewhat steady form under new manager Ronald Koeman, it is plain to everyone that the present team is a pale shadow of its former self. Barca will most probably fail to win the La Liga unless they buck up and return to their previous consistent winning ways.

It is Atletico Madrid’s title to lose as they have had an exceptional season only to be faltering just before the finish. The refreshed Real are also charged up and can easily get it if Atletico slip up. If Barcelona can avoid losing any more points and the other two teams drop some points, Koeman could very well be holding the La Liga in his first season managing the Catalan giants. Whichever team prevails in the end, a photo-finish is assured.

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