Barça, Atletico set for thrilling La Liga showdown
MADRID – Reuters
Atletico Madrid’s Turkish midfielder Arda Turan will do his best to help his team claim La Liga title. A draw will be enough for the Madrid club at Barcelona to cap a dream season with the league title. REUTERS photoLa Liga is set for one of its most thrilling finishes when Barcelona hosts leader Atletico Madrid in a winner-takes-all showdown at the Nou Camp on the final day of the campaign May 17.
Only twice in the history of Spain’s top flight has the title been decided with a direct head-to-head clash on the last day and when the calendar was set last year few would have expected Atletico to be competing with vastly wealthier rival Barça for the championship at this stage.
Real Madrid, the world’s richest club by income ahead of Barça, was in contention until last weekend when it was beaten at Celta Vigo but it is the capital’s second club, which has about a quarter of the resources of the big two, which is close to pulling off a remarkable achievement.
Atletico has not been in contention in La Liga since it last won in 1996, tasting relegation at the start of this century, but is now in with a chance of claiming an historic La Liga and European double.
Whatever the outcome of May 17’s game, thoughts will immediately turn to the following week’s Champions League final against Real in Lisbon, when Atletico will be looking to win its first continental crown and deny its glamorous neighbor a record-extending 10th.
“We have an historic chance to win two titles and we are proud because we have won over a lot of people with our passion and excitement,” Atletico captain Gabi said at a promotional event on May 14.
“A lot of people want us to win and this team has shown an identity that we haven’t seen for a very long time,” added the midfielder, who has flourished under coach Diego Simeone and whose consistency has been key to Atletico’s recent success.
“We have to keep doing the same we have been doing all season, intensity and confidence.”
After 37 matches in La Liga, Atletico is top on 89 points, with Barça on 86 and Real on 84.
If Barça, chasing a fifth title in six years, beat Atletico May 17 it will be champions as it would have a better head-to-head record after the title rivals drew 0-0 at the Calderon in Madrid in January.
A draw would be enough for Atletico to become the first side other than Real and Barça to win La Liga since Valencia in 2004.
The last time the title was decided with a head-to-head clash was in 1950-51, when Atletico pipped Sevilla. The only other occasion was five years earlier when Sevilla edged Barca.
Atletico and Barça have already played each other five times this season in a series of closely-fought encounters where the Catalan club had the lion’s share of possession but was mostly thwarted by a mean defense.
Barça edged Atletico to clinch the season-opening Spanish Super Cup, when Neymar’s goal in a 1-1 draw at the Calderon in the first leg was enough to secure victory after the pair played out a 0-0 stalemate the Nou Camp in the return.
After holding Barça at the Calderon in January in La Liga, Atletico clung on for a 1-1 draw at the Nou Camp in last month’s Champions League quarterfinal, first leg and then won 1-0 in the return in Madrid.
Barça captain Xavi believes the key to May 17’s game will be to score first and force Atletico to push forward.
“They are the best in defense, they pressure you, support each other and have different options up front,” Xavi told a news conference on May 14.
“We thought we’d lost the League and these things happen in football, and now it’s in our hands,” added the Spain playmaker.
“It’s a unique game and I don’t know if it will happen again. We are still hungry and the fans should be encouraged.”
Coach Gerardo Martino, an Argentine compatriot of Simeone’s, and the Barça players all-but wrote off their chances after a 2-2 draw at home to Getafe this month but Atletico and Real also stumbled, allowing Barça to stay in the hunt.
However, even victory on May 17 may not be enough to save Martino, who has had a disappointing first season in charge, and many expect former Barça and Spain midfielder Luis Enrique, now at Celta, to take over for next season.