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15 Feb 2018

Can Atletico Madrid catch Barcelona in La Liga title race?

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Dragging themselves forward

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Losing the streak

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 Looking ominous

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Half a chance

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Make or break

(Photo credit: @cfcunofficial (Chelsea D))

With thirty minutes remaining in Estadio Benito Villamarin, the home of Real Betis, it looked like Barcelona may eventually cede ground at the top of La Liga. 

Until that point, they were unbeaten throughout their opening 19 league matches and had been held in only three matches. 

The previous day, Atletico Madrid had been held by Girona and Ernesto Valverde’s side had the opportunity to increase their lead at the top to double figures, 11 points, for the first time that season.

Betis were in fine form, a victory would have taken them into the European places having scored five goals at city rivals Sevilla only two matchdays previously. 

Just before the hour mark, Ivan Rakitic – a former Sevilla captain – broke their resistance before Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez netted two apiece in a stunning demolition job in the final thirty minutes. 

Dragging themselves forward

It was the latest statement of intent by the champions-in-waiting. Their previous match trip saw the Blaugrana come from two goals down to win 4-2 at Real Sociedad – their first league triumph in the Anoeta in nine years. 

It was their fourth away victory in a row, after a 2-0 win at fifth-placed Villarreal and a 3-0 triumph at Real Madrid. They were still unbeaten and their path to the league title appeared to be a procession.

They were given an almighty fright by lowly Alaves – who recorded their first ever win at Camp Nou the previous season – who led 1-0 in the Catalan capital for over 50 minutes before two late goals saw Barcelona triumph in controversial fashion. 

Losing the streak

Barcelona's domestic unbeaten run came to an end with a 1-0 defeat at Espanyol in the Copa del Rey quarter-final – their first ever loss at the RCDE Stadium, opened in 2009.

Scraping through 2-1 on aggregate, they advanced past Valencia into April’s final against Sevilla but, with fixtures piling up, the toll has been evident. 

A late Gerard Pique header ensured Valverde’s side avoided a league defeat at their city neighbours but a draw cut their lead back to single figures before a supremely well-organised Getafe became the first team to stop Barca scoring in La Liga the following weekend.

Looking ominous

Atletico Madrid’s chances of a league challenge have suddenly been reignited, having lost just one league game all season – at Espanyol (proving to display a formula for halting La Liga’s best). 

With nine wins in 11, Diego Simeone’s men were doing what they do best – winning ugly. Five of those victories were 1-0, including each of the last two. 

“We will be fighting for the title until the last,” Atleti’s president Cerezo is cited as saying by Diario AS. “There is still a game between us and Barcelona which could change the gap and could make things even more interesting.”

Boss Diego Simeone meanwhile downplayed claims of a title challenge, by stating: “We aren’t looking at any other teams, we are only focused on ourselves and increasing the points tally we finished last season with.”

Half a chance

However, with the gap at the top down to seven points and Barcelona having to contend with Champions League knockout football and a Copa final later in the season, it could be that Los Rojiblancos have half a chance of applying major pressure. 

Much will depend on their balancing and rotation for Europa League matches, following their surprise early elimination from Europe’s premier club competition.

Their next eight fixtures look set to define their status as league contenders or pretenders as they face five of their top eight rivals, including trips to Barcelona and Real Madrid, while five of their final seven league fixtures will come against teams in the bottom half alongside home games against Betis and Eibar.

Make or break

Simeone’s side have the best defensive record in Europe’s top five leagues, with only nine goals conceded in 23 matches. 

Their problem is that Barca have the second best – having yielded only two more – while the Catalan club have racked up 26 more goals. There are clear signs in results and performances that Barca are slowing, but a seven-point lead is significant and is likely to still be decisive. 

Next month’s clash between the two at Camp Nou may be make or break for Atletico.

Can Atletico Madrid challenge Barcelona for the title come the end of the season? Let us know your thoughts by commenting below.