37 matches and 217 goals later, it has all come down to the final 90 minutes, one final game, for traditional Spanish football rivals – Barcelona and Real Madrid. Though it would sound like a two-horse race, as it has been for majority of the last decade, it was far from it.
Till last week, it was Atletico Madrid who were the threatening team from the Spanish Capital. At one point, Barcelona was so far ahead (10 points) with nine games to go, that La Liga had become a boring, foregone conclusion. Then, almost on cue, the unthinkable happened: The Catalan Champions, treble winners from last year, tanked. They lost three in a row, beginning with an El Classico defeat to Real Madrid. Just like that, Atletico and Real, by winning their next three games, were suddenly back in it with the momentum in their favor.
Atletico and Barcelona were suddenly level on points at the top, with Barcelona ahead due to a better head-to-head record. And Real, one point adrift, turned their focus on the Champions League.
In 14 days, the entire anatomy of the season had changed. One more occurrence confirmed this: Defending champions Barcelona crashed out to Atletico, commanded and masterminded admirably by Diego Simone, in the Champions League quarterfinals. Once again, this was against the flow of form and play through the season.
Out of nowhere, Atletico soon made their second Champions League final in three years – after losing heartbreakingly to derby rivals Real two years ago in the final. And, as it turns out, they will face them once again – the two Spanish capital teams who were seemingly out of the title race till a month ago – are now back, fighting for the biggest title of Europe. And there is no Barcelona.
Fortunately, for Barcelona, they gathered momentum just in time, won their last three league games and look favorites to overcome Granada on Saturday. If they win, they will retain the title, no matter what Real Madrid do against Deportivo La Coruna at the same time.
Barcelona will remember what happened eight years ago on the final day – when they were held to a draw by a struggling Real Betis in the penultimate game, while a Fabio Capello-driven Madrid came from behind to defeat Mallorca on the final day to stay level and win the title on a better head-to-head record. Till March that season, Madrid had seemed completely out of it. It was an extraordinary comeback. This time, however, they’re back at the same spot, after Atletico lost to already-relegated Levante on Super Sunday. This means that Atletico has no chance to overcome Barcelona, and also means that they can focus solely on their Champions League final against Real Madrid now.
Barcelona will want to complete their ‘regeneration’ just in time, and they can still win the double of the League and Spanish Super Cup in a season where their top scorer isn’t Lionel Messi for a change. It’s Uruguan wild-child Luis Suarez, who is primed to win the Spanish Golden Boot, and could finish his season with more than 55 goals. He has been a revelation for Barcelona, just as Gareth Bale has stepped up for Madrid when Cristiano Ronaldo was struggling to find form last month.
The biggest teams in Spain are set for another final-day showdown drama, and though they aren’t playing one another, it sure feels like another ‘El Clasico.’ Madrid will pray that Granada show up after they demolished Sevilla last week. Barcelona, though, doesn’t need to hope. They just need to win.
And then watch, as both the Madrid teams take on each other two weeks later to snatch away their European title. This is what you call a real ‘season.’ No favorites, just last minute-gasps to a marathon campaign.