Not even the most avid fans in Madrid could see this one coming.
Thanks to an improbable collapse by a Barcelona team that looked unstoppable only a month ago, Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid are back in contention for the title.
With five matches left, Atletico is even with the once-unbeatable Catalan club, and Real Madrid is only one point behind.
“There’s still a lot of league left, we are thrilled,” Spanish league president Javier Tebas said Monday. “We said a few months ago that it wasn’t over yet.”
None of the other top five leagues in Europe enter the final stretch of the season with the first three teams so close together.
The Premier League has attracted a lot of attention thanks to Leicester’s amazing run. It holds a big lead over second-place Tottenham, and the difference to third-place Manchester City is already up to 13 points.
Bayern Munich is seven points clear of Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga, and the difference to third-place Bayer Leverkusen is 27 points. In Italy, Juventus is nine points ahead of second-place Napoli and 14 points in front of Roma. Paris Saint-Germain cruised to the French league title with several matches to spare.
It wasn’t always this close in Spain.
Atletico was trailing by nine points last month, and Real Madrid was 12 points back. But while the Madrid teams kept winning, Barcelona imploded.
The Catalan team lost three straight games to squander its comfortable lead in the Spanish league and was eliminated by Atletico Madrid in the Champions League quarterfinals, ending its chances of repeating the treble from a season ago.
Its record streak of 39 unbeaten games was halted by a 2-1 loss to Real Madrid at the Camp Nou, and it hasn’t won in the league since a home match against last-place Getafe on March 12. Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar have failed to get the team back on track.
“We have an incredible challenge in front of us, we have to win the last five games,” Barcelona coach Luis Enrique said. “We just have to get back up. We still depend on ourselves, but the cushion is over. If there’s one team that’s capable of picking itself up, it’s this Barcelona team.”
Barcelona and Real Madrid have dominated in Spain recently, winning the league title 10 of the last 11 seasons. But Atletico has become a significant force in the past few years after the arrival of coach Diego Simeone, who instilled a team-first attitude and a fierce defensive scheme that allowed the club to become one of the most competitive in Spain and Europe.
“You can compete for titles even if you don’t have the same financial power as some other clubs,” Tebas said. “Atletico Madrid has been showing this the last few years. With less than half of the revenue of the bigger clubs, it has been able to compete in the national level and in the Champions League.”
Atletico won the 2014 title by finishing three points ahead of Barcelona and Real Madrid. Last year, Real Madrid finished two points behind Barcelona, with Atletico 16 points back.
Atletico has three home games in the last five rounds, while Barcelona and Real Madrid play three away games.
“It will be hard,” said Simeone, whose team has won seven of its last eight league matches. “We only have one option in our next games, which is to win, win and win.”
All of Barcelona’s opponents are 13th or worse in the 20-team standings, while Atletico has to play at fifth-place Athletic Bilbao and against sixth-place Celta Vigo at home in the final match.
Real Madrid, which has won seven in a row in the league and is also in the Champions League semifinals, still has to play against fourth-place Villarreal and 12th-place Valencia, and its final game is at Deportivo La Coruna.
“We’re getting closer and closer to La Liga,” Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane said. “We know that if we’re going to achieve something, we have to believe we can do it. We have to keep going for it.”