Monday 22 January 2018

Barcelona and Atletico set up title showdown

Xabi Alonso can’t believe it as Real Madrid blow title hopes
Xabi Alonso can’t believe it as Real Madrid blow title hopes

Ian Hawkey

AND then there were two. Spain's gripping title-race has lost one candidate, Real Madrid, but the outcome will still be decided on the last day of the season next Saturday.

Deliciously, the fixture list brings league leaders Atletico Madrid to the home of the only club who can overtake them, Barcelona.

Both failed to win yesterday, at home to Malaga and away at Elche respectively, almost as if they could not bear that the suspense be resolved any other way.

Barcelona, try as they might, were incapable of breaking down Elche. Their 0-0 draw there was forgiven only by Atletico's edgy 1-1 draw against what was eventually a 10-man Malaga, at home.

The gap between the clubs thus stays at three points, meaning the only result that will retain the title for Barcelona and deny Atletico a first Liga since 1996 is a home win at Camp Nou.

Seven days after what will be a sapping, nervy trip, Atletico will meet Real Madrid in Lisbon with the Champions League at stake.

With so much so tantalisingly close, nervousness at Atletico is inevitable. Yesterday, it was palpable, in the defensive error that put them a goal down against Malaga and in the roughness of their finishing.

FATIGUE

But part of the beauty of the 2013-14 denouement in Spain lies in how fatigue and anxiety have been choreographed across all the contenders. Momentum has ebbed like a contagion.

Last weekend, none of the top three won their matches; yesterday none of the top three could muster the victory that would give them an edge.

For Real, that was a slip too far, their 2-0 defeat at Celta Vigo a third game on the trot without a win, though their line-up in Vigo reflected a heavy prioritising of the Champions League final, with Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Angel di Maria all rested.

On a warm Iberian evening, when the wisest match-goer took to the stadium not one transistor but two, to monitor in each ear events at the other relevant games, Real were a goal down by half-time.

By that stage, Atletico and Barca were already more vexed at their own situations than relieved that a three-horse race was becoming a simpler first versus second.

Anxiety and hope seemed to strike them almost simultaneously at venues more than 200 miles apart.

In Madrid, David Villa struck the crossbar in the 12th minute. Down in Elche, Andres Iniesta's shot ricocheted off the crossbar in the 13th. Atletico would suffer more after that, but end up more buoyed.

At a packed Vicente Calderon, an error gave Malaga the lead just after an hour. Toby Alderweireld, the Belgian defender drafted in by Atletico because of a suspension to Diego Godin, seemed to lose sight of long clearance. He missed his header and Malaga's Samuel pounced.

Alderweireld's haunting lasted just eight minutes. After several limp set-pieces, normally a speciality of Atletico, they scored a typical Atletico goal, Alderweireld nodding in from a corner.

Barcelona, potent enough to have have scored 99 Liga goals this season, had plenty of possession but a shortage of punch at Elche.

Some credit for that to the opposition. Elche had lined out knowing that only a win would guarantee them a last day without fear of possible relegation.

As for the coach readying his players to stymie Atletico and confirm Malaga's membership of the top division, it was Bernd Schuster, who as a player accumulated that rare trifecta, ex-Barca, ex-Real Madrid and ex-Atletico.

The Celta coach extinguishing Real's hopes? Luis Enrique, formerly of Real and Barcelona and for the last 20 years, seldom shy of saying which one of the two he prefers.

His home is still in Barcelona, and last week local television cameras filmed a delegation of Barca executives visiting it, almost certainly to agree that Luis Enrique will be head coach at Camp Nou as of July.

The man he has been earmarked to replace, Gerardo Martino, made it known in early April he had no appetite to continue. He might yet be remembered relatively well.

His Barca's standards lowered in Europe, but he has them one home win away from a fifth championship in sixth years.

"If we win the league, we are not going to say we didn't deserve it," Martino found himself telling reporters.

It sounded odd, but invited the question, who is the most deserving? (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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