What a cruel way for Atletico Madrid to celebrate their anniversary. Founded on 26. In April 1903, they played exactly as they do now, 118 years later, with tired mistakes, forgotten moments and bewildered expressions, in Sunday night’s 2-1 loss to Athletic Bilbao.

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A result that gives us the most exciting race in the top four since La Liga became a 20-team league a quarter of a century ago.

In case you spent all your energy on the results without looking at the top of the title race, we found Atleti with 73 points, defending champion Real Madrid with 71 points, surprise favorite Barcelona (who played a game less) with 71 points (but are trailing due to Madrid’s loss of the two Clasicos), and one very dark horse rising quickly: Sevilla Football Club on 70 points.

The good news for Atleti – which they will probably need – is that since 1997, when a 38-game season began because La Liga was reduced from 22 to 20 clubs, there have only been three occasions when the best team has squandered that lead with five games to go and said goodbye to the title with tears in their eyes.

The first time a team leading La Liga after 33 games stumbled, collapsed and begged never to be reminded of this aberration was in 2002, when Real Madrid, coached by Vicente del Bosque and featuring only Zinedine Zidane, led Rafa Benitez and Valencia in early April, but scored and conceded with a better goal difference.

However, terrible defeats against Real Sociedad, Osasuna and Deportivo La Coruna plunged Los Blancos into a slump which was only made up for with a third place finish and a Champions League victory at Hampden against Bayer Leverkusen.

Not as bad as the consolation prizes.

LEAGUE TABLE

Thean played Article
Atletico Madrid 33 73
Real Madrid 33 71
Barcelona 32 71
Sevilla FC 33 70

A year later, there was a second explosion. Poor Deportivo La Coruna (remember them?) caught up with Real Sociedad in the inter-club battle and took over third place from Real Madrid with a one point lead after 33 games this season.

But on the 22nd. By June (yes, that’s when the La Liga title was decided!) Del Bosque, Zidane and a formidable Ronaldo-Rola partnership had finally brought Real back, while Deportivo languished in third place.

And the only time, at least so far, that the league leaders let the title slip away with 450 minutes to go was in 2007, when Frank Rijkaard was about to quit Barcelona.

After the 33rd. Week leads Barca by two points over Madrid. Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Lilian Thuram, Deco, Samuel Eto’o, Ronaldinho and Lionel Messi played in the 1-1 draw with Real Betis and were denied a goal by Brazilian winger Rafa Sobis in the final minute in front of 78,000 furious Blaugrana fans at the Camp Nou.

Here’s how.

They ended a dramatic final day with a draw with Fabio Capello of Madrid, meaning Los Blancos, with 76 points, are champions thanks to their best Clásico record in the individual standings this season.

Of course, the fact that such collapses so close to the finish line are rare doesn’t guarantee that we won’t see the fourth member of this insufferably awkward group, the Close But No Cigar Gang.

Atleti still has their fate in their own hands, but only just.

If they win all remaining ties, they will win the title. It’s that simple.

Ronald Koeman’s relentless machine (which has secured 46 of 51 points since the end of December) is expected to beat Granada at the Camp Nou on Thursday and break away from the top of the league table by a point, but there is another important weekend on the agenda in early May with Madrid hosting Sevilla and Atleti visiting Barcelona.

If Diego Simeone can shake up Rip Van Winkle’s team, put up some fight, get Luis Suarez fit again and score again, then a win at Camp Nou is not impossible.

How much do you think the Uruguayan would have enjoyed paying Koeman for a phone call last summer when the Dutchman, on behalf of the now deceased and disgraced Josep Maria Bartomeu, told Suarez he had more overtime than he needed? I think you know how much.

Los Rojiblancos have not beaten Barcelona at Camp Nou since February 2006, but even a draw (in three of their last seven visits) could be enough if Koeman’s side stumble in the slightly more difficult series, especially next weekend at Mestal.

But the spectacularly hesitant progress of Atleti, who have won the Spanish title just twice since 1977, is not the only notable facet of the 2020-21 La Liga season.

The gap between frontrunner Atleti and fourth-placed Sevilla is just three points. In this context, it is amazing.

Not only is it the most intense competition of any major European league (with a respectful nod to the quadrangle at the top of the Ligue 1 in France), but it’s also been a real flight of imagination for Spain over the past 24 years.

Thirteen times in this phase of the season, the difference between the first and the fourth score was fifteen points or more. And when you think about the absolute extremes: When Madrid or Barcelona played steamroller football, the difference between first and fourth place (in 2012, 2011 and 2010) was 35, 31 and 29 points respectively.

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1:03

Alejandro Moreno changes his choice of La Liga squad to Barcelona to lift the trophy.

At the time of writing, if you subtract 35 points from Atleti’s top spot, you’re in 12th place. Up the rankings is Levante, who have won just once in their last nine games and are nine points off bottom spot!

A really great twist on most previous seasons.

With two Champions League finals, a national title and a Europa League win in the last seven years, Atleti appear to be deep in fear or exhaustion – or both.

I think many neutrals will vote for Sevilla. The Andalusians are three points off the top of La Liga, a place where you normally need crampons, ropes, a sherpa and oxygen to climb, and they haven’t won a Spanish league title since the post-war period.

But Julen Lopetegui’s in-form squad have won five games in a row, and that despite trailing by nine. May travels to Real Madrid, they seem to be the fresher and less derivative team – the one with the best momentum.

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1:40

Alessandro Del Piero talks about Zinedine Zidane and Real Madrid’s return to the top division this season.

This, of course, is where the idiosyncratic (but beautiful) face-off rule in Spain comes in handy.

If two teams are tied in points in the La Liga standings, they will be split into two teams, with one having more points than the other.

If they are tied, the team with the best goal difference over the entire campaign wins.

Atleti beat Barcelona 1-0 in their only match so far and would win or draw in 8. May at Camp Nou to get the final advantage. Atleti loses the duel with Madrid, but beats Sevilla 2-1.

Sevilla currently have no wins over the rest of the top four, but could do so in round 9. Can transfer to Madrid if they win 2-0 (after we lost 1-0 to Madrid at Pizza Sanchez in December).

Barcelona lost 1-1 to Madrid, won against Sevilla and drew 1-0 against Atleti after losing twice previously.

So for those who have always complained when Madrid or Barcelona are so muscular and brilliant that the title race will be played out between them in April, it’s time to sit back, appreciate what’s going on, but also accept that the two Spanish giants need sadness, stagnation and turmoil to come within reach, as is the case now.

The countdown has begun. Atleti seem to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown, Madrid feel that winning the Champions League is priority number one, Barcelona are the big favourites (for what would be one of their most important and surprising titles) and Sevilla are undoubtedly the neutral favourites to surprise Spain, shock the world and see if the throne of La Liga is truly tailor-made for them.

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