It’s winner takes all as La Liga nears epic conclusion


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It's the league nobody wants to win. Of the last seven combined matches played by Spain's leading three, not one has ended with a victory for Atletico, Barcelona or Real Madrid. The triumvirate look exhausted, nervy and susceptible to the immense pressure.

Atletico would be champions for the first time since 1996 had they beaten Malaga on Sunday at the packed Vicente Calderon, but, despite creating enough chances, they only drew. Did they bottle it? Did they miss their great chance?


Barcelona, whose players and manager talked as if the league was over three weeks ago, couldn't win either and were held 0-0 at hard to beat Elche. Which was no surprise given their players spent much of the previous days at BBQs.

Many of them were booked in for personal appearances this week, tying up matters before they disappear ahead of the World Cup finals. Carles Puyol and the entire team will on Thursday pay homage to Puyol's superb career after training.

There's an end of season feel about the club and talk of changes being needed, yet if Barca win on Saturday against Atletico they'll be champions of Spain for the 23rd time. Real Madrid have won the league 32 times, while Atletico are in third with nine. Win and Barca will be champions ahead of the two teams who contend the Champions League final. Crisis? What crisis?

It's the most dramatic end to the season imaginable. Thirty-seven games so far haven't been able to find a champion, though Madrid are out of the race after a limp 2-0 defeat at Luis Enrique's Celta Vigo side, who've risen to ninth in the table. If Madrid don't win the Champions League then the knives will be sharpened for Carlo Ancelotti at a club which thrives on internal conflict.


It had been over a year since the big three had failed to win in the same week, now it has happened twice in succession, and talk of 100 points being necessary to win the league is long gone. Atletico could win it with 90.

Saturday's game - a 98,000 sell-out with face value tickets costing between €93 (in the nosebleed third tier seats) and €245 (near Shakira) - is one of the biggest in Spanish history, and whoever wins will be champions.

The kick-off time and date were shifted six days before the game to appeal to television markets rather than fans who actually attend matches. That's those not watching the FA Cup final at the same time. The organisation of Spanish football is frequently shambolic.

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If both sides continue their non-winning runs and the game finishes equal then Atletico will triumph as they're three points ahead. If Barca win then it will be on the head-to-head record. As Atletico have not been in this position before, they can't draw on experience but their situation couldn't be clearer: if they win their last two games of this epic season then they'll be Spanish and European champions.

It would be a shame if they do a Bayer Leverkusen, who were renamed 'Neverkusen' in 2002 after losing the Champions League final and also missing out on the Bundesliga at the last moment, as well as the German Cup.

Though they finished the season unbeaten at home, Atletico's goals have dried up. They haven't scored two in a league game since February and managed only two in their previous three matches. A 0-0 draw at Camp Nou would suit them - and that's the favourite predicted scoreline given there have been two 0-0 draws in the clubs' five meetings so far this season.

Two others ended 1-1, with the solitary win coming when Atletico beat Barca 1-0 in the Champions League. Barca haven't beaten Atletico in five, but they've scored 99 goals this season. A 100th could be very special.

Barca are likely to line up as follows: Pinto; Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Adriano; Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta; Alexis Sanchez, Messi and Pedro. Neymar, Pique and Alba are saying they're fit, but Pique, who has missed their last eight games with injury, is the most likely to start. Atletico are likely to start Courtois; Juanfran, Miranda, Godin, Felipe Luis; Koke, Gabi, Tiago, Arda; Raul Garcia and Costa. That's a full strength side.

Both teams are managed by Argentines, both have dropped points, but while Barca undeniably have better players, they're full of doubt and not playing well. Simeone appears to have the measure of them tactically too. In the 11 games before Simeone took charge, Barca scored 38 times against Atletico. Messi was the most prolific of those goalscorers. But Messi hasn't scored in his last six games against Atletico.

The game has echoes of Liverpool against Arsenal in 1989. Who is going to step forward and be Michael Thomas?

When the fixtures were published last June, the reaction in Spain was that the Barca v Atletico game on the final day of the season could be intriguing. Yet the probability of both teams having the title in their own destiny was minute. But that's how it is. Win the game and win the league.

Andy Mitten - @AndyMitten

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