Feb 16, 2014, 6:42 PM EDT
Atlético Madrid, Barcelona and Real Madrid have been on a higher level than the rest of Spain all season, so it’s no surprise the trio put up a set of convinced results in this weekend’s La Liga action. Yet during a winter where each team has shown its flaws, it’s worth asking: Why now? What clicked this weekend that wasn’t in place while Atlético struggled over the last two weeks, Barcelona stumbled against Valencia, and Real Madrid spent January trying to find their scoring touch?
Perhaps it took Spain’s giants seven weeks to shake off the league’s short winter break, but there’s another potential explanation. With UEFA Champions League restarting on Tuesday, all three contenders may be stepping it up their games, hoping to mount a serious challenge for this year’s European Cup.
Barcelona’s leading the way. We talked about their 6-0 result yesterday, but just as important is their return to health. Neymar, out for a month, played in the second half against Rayo Vallecano. Andrés Iniesta appears to be approaching 100 percent. Lionel Messi has hit his stride. The oft-injured Carles Puyol will be available this week, while 34-year-old Xavi Hernández was rested ahead of the team’s trip to Manchester City. When Barcelona walks out at the Etihad on Tuesday, they’ll be as healthy as they’ve been all season.
Atlético also served notice this weekend, posting a 3-0 win on Saturday over visiting Valladolid. Given the three-match losing streak Atleti brought into the match, the win alone was noteworthy, but the fact that Diego Simeone’s team scored twice in the first four minutes hinted at a level of urgency we hadn’t seen over the previous two weeks. If Atlético can reclaim the form that saw them lose only one game between August and January, they’ll also reclaim their status as Champions League dark horses.
Dark horse is a status a club with nine titles can never assume, but with Real Madrid posting a 3-0 win at Getafe on Sunday, Carlo Ancelotti’s team is most certainly a contender. While the coach’s switch to a 4-3-3 in early January initially produced a series of unconvincing( if victorious) results, los Blancos are now playing their best soccer of the season. They’ve joined the cluster of teams who you could see knocking off Bayern Munich, who will still need to be caught on a bad day to have their title defense derailed.
This weekend, all three Spanish contenders looked capable of playing spoilers. Even Atlético, who looked on the verge of regressing to their 2012-13 selves, showed the type of play you’d expect from a Champions League semifinalist. If their recovery is real, La Liga has three teams who can realistically expect to be alive come the quarterfinals.
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