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Looking at the run-in for La Liga’s title contenders

Apr 17, 2014, 5:24 PM EST

Diego Costa AP

If you’ve followed the campaign in Spain, you know league-leading Atlético Madrid will face defending champions Barcelona on the last day of the season. It’s been harped on all year. Ever since it became clear Atlético would sustain a title challenge,* May 17 has been circled in big red Sharpie on our mental calendars.

*Let’s also acknowledge how cool is it that we finally have a different title race. The circuit’s been plagued by the perception that it’s Barça, Real Madrid, and a bunch of sadness. That’s always a been gross exaggeration, with the distance between the top two and the pack feeding the delusion. If Atlético can establish itself as a consistent Champions League presence, embracing all the financial rewards that go with it, Diego Simeone may prove one of the most important people in the league’s history – somebody that redefined how the division is perceived by the world.

With their recent struggles, however, the Blaugrana may be no more than spoilers come round 38, given the holders are currently four points behind Atleti. With new injury concerns compound waning form and uncertainties at the club, Barcelona are drifting in the face of a tough run-in, one that sees fourth place Athletic at the Nou Camp this weekend.

Here are the three title contenders’ closing scheduled, with our thoughts on how the race could unfold.

Third place: Barcelona (78 pts.)

Apr. 20 – vs. Athletic
Apr. 27 – at Villarreal
May 3 – vs. Getafe
May 10 – at Elche
May 17 – vs. Atlético Madrid

Outlook: Given the team’s depressed spirits, the next two games couldn’t come at a worse time. Both teams Barcelona would normally beat, both capable of pulling an upset, Athletic and Villarreal are catching Barcelona at the right time. Unless they snap out of their funk, the Blaugrana will be out of the title race in two weeks. Prediction: 10 points, finish with 88.

Second place: Real Madrid (79 pts.)

Apr. 23 – vs. Bayern Munich
Apr. 26 – vs. Osasuna
Apr. 29 – at Bayern Munich
May 4 – vs. Valencia
May 6 – at Real Valladolid
May 10 – at Celta Vigo
May 17 – vs. Espanyol

Outlook: Even with some Champions League congestion (the italicized games), Real Madrid should win out. Their only road games are against teams in the bottom half, with eighth place Valencia the toughest challenge they’ll face at home. Knowing they’ll need to run the table to make Atlético’s game in Barcelona matter, los Blancos should be able to avoid pitfalls, even if the two-day turn around from Valencia to Real Valladolid seems harsh. Prediction: 15 points, finish with 94.

First place: Atlético Madrid (82 pts.)

Apr. 18 – vs. Elche
Apr. 22 – vs. Chelsea
Apr. 27 – at Valencia
Apr. 30 – at Chelsea
May 5 – at Levante
May 10 – vs. Málaga
May 17 – at Barcelona

Outlook: Though Atleti close the season with Barcelona, the team hasn’t lost to the holders all year (five games). Not on their two trips to the Nou Camp. Not when the defending champions were playing well. Even in those circumstances, Atlético’s managed at least a draw with Barcelona.

Perhaps a bigger concern: that trip to Valencia. Sandwiched in between Champions League matches, the game could prove challenging for a squad that’s not used to pursuing titles. Given all the other unprecedented heights Simeone’s side has met, however, winning at the Mestalla is manageable. Prediction: 13 points, finish with 95.

Note: Atlético Madrid wins the head-to-head tiebreaker with Real Madrid, having taken four points from the teams’ head-to-head meetings in league this season.

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