Messi renews Barcelona hopes with La Liga’s 4 title contenders set to face off

This coming weekend in La Liga is one of the most important to ever be staged in the Spanish top-flight with four sides with genuine ambitions of winning this season’s title paired off.

On Saturday afternoon, Barcelona – who currently sit third in the standings, on 74 points – will go top of the league, temporarily at least, if they defeat current league leaders Atletico Madrid (76 points) at the Camp Nou.

If the Catalan giants win or draw, that would allow Real Madrid the opportunity to go top of the standings the following evening; Zinedine Zidane’s side also currently have 74 points, but with superior head-to-head record against both Barca and Atletico.

The problem for Los Blancos is that they are facing Sevilla, who are also in the title picture. The Andalusian side are on 70 points but face Athletic Club Bilbao on Monday night in their game in hand.

Sevilla – who have not been crowned Spanish champions since 1946 – remain firm outsiders for the title but they are the division’s in-form side, dropping just two points from their last eight matches, winning each of their last five and seeing their title odds drop from 100/1 to 12/1 in the past fortnight.

The title race has been transformed by Atleti’s stuttering form in the second half of the campaign – Los Rojiblancos have blown a double-digit lead at the top of the standings, while Barcelona suffered a shock home defeat to Granada last week and Madrid have dropped crucial points to Getafe and Real Betis in recent weeks.

Here is how the run-in looks for all for clubs.

Atletico Madrid

Diego Simeone’s side are hopeful of securing their first title since 2014 and whilst they remain top of the standings, they are the least in-form side of the top four.

After swooping an incredible 50 points from their opening 19 matches they have stuttered since – with just 26 points from their following 15 outings.

They have suffered recent defeats at Sevilla and Athletic Bilbao, and drew at Real Betis, whilst they also had a huge slice of fortune in 1-0 wins over struggling pair Alaves and Real Valladolid – who both spurned late penalties.

Their next outing – away to Barcelona – may prove pivotal to their title hopes before they follow it up with successive home matches against Real Sociedad (who are fifth in the standings) and Osasuna, who have little to play for in the closing weeks.

Atleti finish their campaign with a trip to Real Valladolid, who currently sit one place and one point above the drop zone in the division.

Real Madrid

Los Blancos hold the longest unbeaten run of any team in Spain – they have not lost any of their last 19 matches in all competitions, stretching back to January’s loss to Levante.

They have recently stumbled in scoreless draws against both Getafe and Real Betis but know that if they win their remaining four games – and Atleti do not win at Barcelona – they will retain their title.

Saturday’s 2-0 win over Osasuna was sandwiched in-between their two Champions League semi-final legs against Chelsea, with Zidane’s side eyeing a remarkable double.

That may prove to be a distraction for Madrid, who have been ravaged by injuries this season with both right-backs – Dani Carvajal and Lucas Vazquez – ruled out for the remainder of the campaign, with multiple others suffering injuries in recent months.

Madrid do have a tricky run-in; Sunday’s clash against Sevilla is followed by tough trips to top-half outfits Granada and Athletic Bilbao, before finalising their campaign against Villarreal. The Yellow Submarine may of course have a Europa League final days later – but they need to see off Arsenal in the semi-finals first.

Barcelona

In December, Ronald Koeman’s side were languishing in the bottom half of La Liga but a remarkable run of form saw them evolve into title challengers.

A run of 51 points in 19 games put them firmly in the mix for the crown – whilst they also won this season’s Copa del Rey – but a loss in last month’s El Clasico against Real Madrid and a shock home defeat against Granada last week has slightly derailed their progress.

Their 80 league goals is by far the highest in the division (next up is Atletico on 61) but they have built an unwanted reputation for underperforming in big matches – losing all three matches against the two Madrid giants and also enduring a disappointing Champions League campaign.

Last week’s loss against Granada – blowing a 1-0 half-time lead as the visitors won at the Camp Nou for the first time in their history – was another example of the Blaugrana stumbling when the pressure is on.

Sunday’s 3-2 win at Valencia was a nervy encounter but has kept them as a leading title contender; despite missing a penalty, Lionel Messi did score twice and Antoine Griezmann was also on target in a game where all five goals came in a pulsating second half.

With Messi – 36 goals and 11 assists so far this campaign, although who is out of contract this summer – in their team, they cannot be written off as a major contender but if they fail to beat Atletico this coming weekend then their fate will be relying on both Madrid clubs dropping points in their closing fixtures.

Barcelona close the campaign with tricky fixtures too; they travel to Levante – where they have lost three of their last four visits – before hosting Celta Vigo – another bogey side for the Blaugrana – and finishing the campaign away at Eibar, who are fighting for their lives at the foot of the standings.

Sevilla

The first nine days of March had appeared to finish Sevilla’s season: they lost the Copa del Rey semi-final in extra time to Barcelona (blowing a 2-0 advantage), they were eliminated 5-4 on aggregate by Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League and they lost 2-1 at struggling Elche in La Liga.

There were even suggestions that their top four place may be under threat, so it is telling that they secured their place in that leading group with five games of the season remaining – such was the drop to Real Sociedad in fifth.

Goalkeeper Yassine Bounou – nicknamed Bono – scored a remarkable equaliser in the fifth minute of added time to rescue a draw at Real Valladolid on 20 March, while Sevilla have won all seven league matches since that loss at Elche.

Included in that run were victories over city rivals Real Betis, over league leaders Atletico Madrid, comeback victories away at both Celta Vigo and Real Sociedad, before defeating Levante and Granada – the latter after being asked to come back onto the pitch by the referee after he had blown for full-time.

It has been a run of games full of non-stop drama but which has elevated the side into unlikely title contenders – if they can defeat Athletic Bilbao on Monday night, they will be just three points from the league summit.

Of course, next week’s trip to Real Madrid will be pivotal – a victory, coupled with Barca meeting Atleti, would genuinely put them into a position where they could smell the title but a defeat could effectively end their dreams.

Its a tough run-in after that trip to the Spanish capital too, with home games against Valencia and Alaves either side of a banana skin visit to Villarreal – who are currently in sixth spot.

Prediction

Such is the tightness of the standings, the dynamics of the race and the remaining fixtures, it is almost impossible to make a call with anything approaching confidence.

Atletico Madrid are the side who have lost any discernible momentum and even though they remain top of the standings and have a relatively gentle run-in after their Camp Nou trip, they are currently playing with the least conviction.

If Simeone’s side do not win at the Camp Nou, then Real Madrid will retain the title – but they have a tough run-in, have the distraction of the Champions League and a squad who, as Zidane admits, are at their physical limits – fatigued and decimated by injuries.

Barcelona may feel that they have already blown their big opportunity due to that defeat to Granada; it is no longer in their own hands and anything other than a victory at home to Atleti this weekend will leave them requiring snookers.

Sevilla remain the outside bet and whilst a title may just evade them, do not be surprised if they end up leapfrogging at least one of the three sides above them in the standings.

Every point matters now in what promises to be an unmissable few weeks.

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