Updated: May 22, 2021 1:33:51 pm
After 35 weeks of relentless action filled with shocks and surprises in fanless stadiums, La Liga is set to conclude on Saturday with the title still up for grabs. With Barcelona out of the race, the question that stands now is… will it be the ever-combative Atletico Madrid or their more illustrious city rival Real Madrid?
Historically, Diego Simeone and his men know the feeling of having a trophy swiped from their hands by Los Blancos all too well, after losing two UEFA Champions League finals to them in the past decade. But now, Atletico have their destiny in their own hands as they lead Real by two points in the standings.
After a tense 2-1 win over Osasuna last Sunday, Atletico head to Real Valladolid on Saturday knowing a victory will ensure their first La Liga title in seven years. But any slip-up could prove to be costly as Real, who have a better head-to-head record than Atletico, are lurking just behind them on 81 points from 37 matches.
‘A DIFFERENT ATLETICO’
Atletico started off their season with a sprint before ceding ground and almost losing balance halfway through the mark. Powered by the goalscoring form of Luis Suarez, Los Colchoneros won 16 of their first 19 matches to take a 10-point lead over the second-placed Real at the end of January with a game in hand.
Despite a wobble in February, when they drew 2-2 at home to Celta Vigo and lost 1-0 to Levante, Atletico managed to fend off Real in the derby by securing a 1-1 draw in March. The defeats to Sevilla and Athletic Bilbao in April deterred their title charge but now, it’s all to play for at Real Valladolid’s Jose Zorrilla Stadium.
“Right from the start, Atletico have shown their consistency… fighting on right till the last gameweek. There have been ups and downs in their season but in the last few weeks, Real have run out of gas because of their injuries and tight schedule. Atletico have a strong mentality and I think they can get the right result at Valladolid and win the league title after seven years,” said former Atletico and Barcelona forward Luis Garcia during a virtual press conference.
“It’s a different Atletico this season. They have focussed not only on their defensive side but on their counter-attacking side too. Simeone’s team has always been combative but nowadays, they control the game well too. Koke and Marcos Llorente have been key players… [Yannick] Carrasco as well after coming from China.”
Diego Forlan, the former Atletico and Villarreal striker, too had his say. “They have been top of the table virtually for all of the season. [Jan] Oblak is one of the best goalkeepers in the world… he demonstrated it yet again. Suarez’s arrival too was a step forward. His goals have been very decisive,” the 42-year-old Uruguayan said.
‘ZIDANE SHOULD BE FIRST OPTION’
Dealing with more than 60 injuries and making do with an ageing squad, Real Madrid head coach Zinedine Zidane has endured a tumultuous season so far. But despite him playing down rumours linking him with an exit at the end of the season, the club has reportedly drawn up potential replacements like former Juventus manager Massimiliano Allegri and Real Madrid legend Raul Gonzalez.
Addressing the topic, former Real Madrid and Malaga defender Fernando Sanz said, “Zidane has done an incredible job this season considering the club had more than 60 players out injured or sick. At one point, Real were on the verge of dropping down to the UEFA Europa League but Zidane turned things around and led the club to UEFA Champions League semis. He has kept fans’ hopes up in La Liga too.”
“Zidane is a great trainer, he has still got a year left on his contract, he loves the players, he loves the club. If you want me to choose between Allegri or Raul as the next coach… well, my first option will still be Zidane,” he added.
The 48-year-old Frenchman is in his second spell at Real Madrid, having won three consecutive UEFA Champions League crowns in his first between 2016 and 2018. He returned a year later after Julen Lopetegui and Santiago Solari were both fired and lifted the La Liga title for the second time as a coach in the 2019/20 season.
‘BARCA NEED TO KEEP HOLD OF MESSI’
With two draws and a loss in their last three encounters in La Liga, Barcelona have now fallen out of contention for the title. Although the Lionel Messi-led side won the Copa del Rey this season, things are not all rosy for them. President Joan Laporta has some big challenges ahead, including convincing Messi to stay after he asked to leave at the end of last season. The 33-year-old Argentine’s contract ends this season and there is still no word on whether he will continue with the club.
“For Barcelona, it has been a topsy-turvy season. Not managing to win the crucial matches against their rivals in the final stretch ended up being decisive for their title charge. In hindsight, their decision to offload Suarez at the start of the season came back to bite them too. In my opinion, what they need to do next is to create a good environment for Messi to stay,” said former Barcelona defender Javier Mascherano, who won five La Liga titles in his eight years at the club.
“If they manage to get [Sergio] Aguero, then I believe he’ll be a great signing.”
Gaizka Mendieta, the former Valencia midfielder, also expressed his opinion about the club’s transitional phase. “Most of the controversies at the club are mostly media-driven. It does not necessarily reflect the situation in Barcelona. What matters is that the club got themselves back on track after the contract saga with Messi and the presidential elections. Next year, they should focus on developing young players like Pedri or [Ansu] Fati to ensure the transition,” he said.
Catch La Liga’s final day action on May 22 live on Facebook Watch.