x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Final twists in the tale still to come as Primera Liga reaches its climax

Luis Enrique could bolster his case for Gerardo Martino's job by finishing off Real Madrid's title hopes

Celta Vigo coach Luis Enrique, pictured during a Primera Liga match against Real Madrid on January 6, 2014, could bolster his case for the Barcelona job by extinguishing Real Madrid's league title hopes this week. Javier Lizon / EPA
Celta Vigo coach Luis Enrique, pictured during a Primera Liga match against Real Madrid on January 6, 2014, could bolster his case for the Barcelona job by extinguishing Real Madrid's league title hopes this week. Javier Lizon / EPA

BARCELONA // Spain’s Primera Liga is enjoying its most exciting finish so far this century, and the final twists will happen on Sunday and on May 18.

Four points separate the leading three of Atletico Madrid (88), Barcelona (85) and Real Madrid (84) with two games to play. Coincidental scheduling or not, Atletico play at Barca in the league’s final game next Sunday, a match likely to be the most-watched in world football so far this year with a sold-out crowd of 98,000 and hundreds of millions following on television.

All three play on Saturday, with Barca playing at 14th-place Elche. Madrid travel to an increasing impressive Celta Vigo side who have risen to ninth – though they have the worst home record outside of any team in the relegation zone.

Most intriguingly, they are managed by their former player, Luis Enrique, who is expected to be named Barca coach to replace Gerardo Martino in the close season. Enrique, who lives in Barcelona, met the club for talks this week.

Atletico play Malaga at their Vicente Calderon home, a fortress where they have not lost all season. No other team can boast such a record. Malaga, in 13th, are a slimmed-down side run along more-efficient lines after their epic Uefa Champions League journey last season.

Form appears to matter little as the league reaches a climax. Tiredness and nerves are adding to the tension and none of the leading three could win last weekend, when Barca and Madrid were held at home to Getafe and Valencia, while Atletico’s nine-game winning streak in league play ended with a 2-0 loss at Levante.

The league is exciting because Atletico have broken the duopoly of Barcelona and Real Madrid, a dominance criticised several times by their boss, Diego Simeone, as “boring”.

Against the odds, Simeone did something about it and, despite working on a wage bill a quarter of the size of his bigger rivals, assembled a side capable of being both.

Atletico have been football’s surprise team and have been rightly lauded for the aggressive, attacking football they play with a team comprised of home-grown youngsters, clever South American signings and loaned players such as goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.

Simeone is the main reason, the indefatigable driver of the talent – though his side looked exhausted against Levante. They had knocked Chelsea out of the Champions League four days earlier. Madrid’s exertions in hammering Bayern Munich 4-0 also took a toll.

Atletico have reached the European Cup final for the first time in 40 years and will face neighbours Real Madrid, but Spain’s attention is focused on domestic matters for the next week and the fascinating permutations from the final two matches.

The leading triumvirate have had enough chances to make the title their own, but each side have faltered at several stages. Written off by their coach and most of their players after the draw against Getafe, Barcelona will be champions if they win their remaining two matches, even if they finish on the same number of points as Atletico.

That is because by winning the final game of the season, they would have a superior head-to-head record, having drawn the league game in Madrid.

Barca and Atletico have already met five times this season, with four draws and that one single-goal Champions League win for Atletico, which saw them reach the semi-finals.

Atletico will be champions on Saturday if they win and Barcelona do not triumph at Elche, but that is one of several fascinating permutations.

Atletico will win the league with two draws but could lose it with a win and a loss.

Or, the craziest of all, Atletico lose to Malaga, Barca beat Elche and Real Madrid win their remaining two matches. That would mean that in the last game, Atletico would need to win to lift the title, Barca would need to win to lift the title, and a draw would see Real Madrid crowned champions.

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