Maybe, just maybe, we’ll have some drama at the top of the La Liga table after all.
We also have a race for fourth place (and Champions League qualification) that grows more interesting every day. Five teams are now in the mix, with Valencia (46 points) breathing down the neck of fourth-place Getafe (47). Behind Valencia but very much alive are Sevilla (46), Alavés (44) and Athletic Bilbao (43).
But let’s start with Atlético Madrid’s bid to track down Barcelona.
Can Atlético Close the Gap?
Barça finally faltered on Tuesday, settling for one point in a seesaw 4-4 draw at Villarreal. That result, combined with Atlético Madrid’s 2-0 win over Girona, means that “only” eight points separate first-place Barcelona and Atleti.
Los Rojiblancos could cut the lead to five with a victory when the teams meet on Saturday at 2:45 p.m. Eastern at Camp Nou. If it wins that game, Atlético would still need Barcelona to drop another five points over its seven remaining games in La Liga. While unlikely, that’s at least feasible, especially if Barcelona continues to rest key players in domestic matches to keep them fresh for the UCL. For now, though, FiveThirtyEight believes the Catalans have a 98 percent chance to win the league, while Atleti has just a 2 percent chance. Would that number jump to more than 10 percent with a win this weekend? Speaking of the analytics site, it says that Lionel Messi (who is having a season solidifying his GOAT status) and Co. have a 62 percent chance to win Saturday, which seems a little high.
How Barcelona managed not to lose to Villarreal despite giving up four unanswered goals at one point is anyone’s guess. It was the latest example in recent months of their tendency to follow a stretch of apparent vulnerability with a flash of brilliance. Whether you’re convinced this team should be the Champions League favorite or afraid their inconsistency will be their undoing, you saw something on Tuesday that reinforced how you feel.
Personally, I’m not terribly concerned about what this means for them. I can’t imagine the Catalans would have had any issues with Villarreal if they hadn’t been resting Messi, Gerard Piqué and Ivan Rakitc to start the game. While I’ll admit Barcelona play with fire more often than they should, the bad news for the rest of La Liga – and Europe – is that having Messi and Luis Suárez means they can get away with it. This is as good a place as any to point out that Barcelona’s last La Liga loss was in November.
As for Saturday’s game, expect to see Atlético play with even more physicality and intensity than usual, as this is their last chance to salvage their season. Diego Simeone’s team has emphatically answered questions of whether it might go into the tank after the UCL heartbreaker to Juventus on March 12 and the subsequent 2-0 loss to Athletic Bilbao.
Based on the 4-0 win over Alavés and the Girona win since the loss to Athletic, this team still believes it is alive in La Liga, which makes it dangerous for at least another 90 minutes. Atleti could be without forward Álvaro Morata, who suffered an ankle injury on Tuesday and would be sorely missed. It’s also unclear whether Diego Costa will be available. Both players, however, practiced Friday, meaning Antoine Griezmann may have more help generating offense than he expected to earlier this week, when the status of Morata and Costa appeared doubtful.
Should Valencia be the Favorite for La Liga’s Fourth Champions League Spot?
Valencia’s last two games, a 1-0 win at Sevilla and a 2-1 victory over Real Madrid at home, make them the most impressive of the bunch at the moment. Those results are both impressive in and of themselves.
And they look even better compared to what Getafe (2-0 loss to Leganes, draw vs. Espanyol), Sevilla (the loss to Valencia, 2-0 win over Alavés) and Alavés (back-to-back losses to Atlético and Sevilla by a combined score of 6-0) have accomplished over the past week. FiveThirtyEight has noticed, ranking Valencia (35%), Sevilla (34%), Getafe (22%) and Athletic Bilbao (4%) as the teams most likely to finish fourth. Valencia’s upcoming schedule is also favorable, as its next five are against Rayo Vallecano, Levante, Real Betis, Atlético and Eibar. The only two teams in that group in the top half of the table are Atleti and 10th-place Real Betis.