Does no club want to win the La Liga?
Does anyone deserve to win La Liga this season? Actually, does anyone want to win La Liga? For a league that has produced some of the most ruthless and high-achieving teams in recent history, the current trend of bottling key matches has been surprisingly widespread. Each of the top 3 teams has lost key games at various points during the run-in; but this weekend they will finally be forced to choose a winner.
Usually it’s the made-for-TV clashes of the Premier League that spice up this time of the season, but La Liga’s top guns are outdoing the EPL’s in committing mass hara-kiri. Ten days ago, for the first time in nearly a year, Atletico Madrid, Barcelona and Real Madrid all dropped points in the same week. The next week saw a repeat. The anti-climaxing has persisted to the point where Barca, no-hopers in the form guide as recently as mid-April, now find they can win the title if they prevail over Atletico at home this weekend, which would pull the sides level on points but give Barca a superior head-to-head record.
Many are blaming the distraction of a European final for Real scraping their way to a draw over the weekend, their 2nd in succession. Exhaustion after a long season is a more likely reason, with half the first team fighting illness and injuries. The draws ended their chances of a continental Treble (they have already won the Copa del Rey), but all will be forgiven if Carlo Ancelotti brings home La Decima, as he was hired to do.
Yet, as attention focuses on Europe’s largest stadium for the 90 minutes that will decide which of Real’s bitter rivals wins the league, fans of Los Blancos will no doubt wonder what could have been, as their counterparts in South London and Liverpool are already doing.
Of those two, Atletico will feel they have left things for too late. True, they are still favourites, as any result other than a Barca victory will see the Rojiblancos win the title. Their parallel progress in the Champions League and the Copa del Rey is a stupendous achievement for an underfunded club that only 3 years ago summoned rookie manager Diego Simeone, a club legend, in a desperate bid to prevent a lurch towards relegation.
But this should not have been the title decider. They could have wrapped things up this weekend by defeating Malaga at home. Now instead of striding out to a guard of honour, they will have to stay focused at the Nou Camp, where their recent record is dismal and their 2 previous visits this year ended in draws – a result that will, however, suffice on Sunday.
There is much to be said for Atletico lifting the title. No team has done more to revive La Liga as a league this season than Atletico, despite lacking the glamour of Real and the aesthetic – if increasingly impotent – philosophy of Barcelona. What they lack in style, they make up for with street wisdom and sheer toughness – both physical and mental. They deserve all the hype, and it would be a shame if they lost the title to an insipid Barcelona, who have done nothing in the last six months to suggest they merit a 23rd league title.
Five times these sides have met this season, with four being draws. The most recent encounter, in the Champions League quarters at Atletico’s Vicente Calderon stadium, ended in a convincing 1-0 win for the hosts. Barcelona have not been poor this season, just very off-form over the last few months. They won both the league clasicos and lost the Copa del final only due to a brilliant individual goal by Gareth Bale.
But in ‘lesser’ games they don’t seem to care. Poor tactics and a demotivated side have contributed to what will likely be the first trophyless season since before Pep Guardiola. The Neymar controversy and the (suspended) ban on transfers for improper dealings have further sullied the image of a club that has long projected itself as good-guy David to Real’s Goliath. Martino may leave in the summer, and there is a real fear that Barca’s extended cycle of dominance has finally, unceremoniously come to an end.
Yet if La Liga’s teams have bottled it when fighting each other, they’ve managed to hold their nerve on the continental stage, and then some. This year we have an all-Spanish final, though not the one expected when Real and Barca reached the semis in 2012 and 2013. Few expected Atletico to get out of the group in their comeback season in Europe; now one win will see them lift the trophy for the first time ever. Till last season, Germany was Real Madrid’s greatest Achilles heel; in fifty years and 26 visits, they had won there just once. This season they have blown the Bundesliga’s top 3 teams out of the competition, destroying Schalke and Bayern Munich on their home turf.
Atletico must ensure they do not get distracted by that occasion, as Real were, when they take on the Blaugrana. Mental strength should not be a problem for Simeone or his men. Yet, their last two matches of the season – in Barcelona and Lisbon – provide a supreme test. The one on Sunday is definitely the easier of the two. If it were merely a question of who wants it more, they could crown the winners before the plane leaves Madrid. But this season, it’s been increasingly hard to answer that question.