Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The La Liga Title Race is Officially On

By Justin Sherman (@JShermOfficial)

It took only seven months to get here, but we did it -- We finally have a title race.

On behalf of soccer fans everywhere, thank you.

1st place and 2nd place are separated by 6 points or more in all of Europe’s Top-5 leagues, except one: Spain's La Liga.

A league title Zinedine Zidane had given up on three weeks ago and Diego Simeone always claimed was beyond his team, and not even an objective, is alive again. Real Madrid’s triumph at the Camp Nou was seen as little more than a blip, perhaps a lack of sharpness from Barca due to their insurmountable lead, but little did we know just how much that result would mean.

Eight points clear of Atlético and 12 clear of Madrid three games ago, the title theirs, Barcelona are now three and four points ahead of them, respectively, after their latest defeat to Real Sociedad.

Barcelona’s house of horrors, the Anoeta, claimed its latest tombstone.

They have not won in San Sebastian since 2007, including only five times in 19, defeated in four of the last five trips, under four different managers.

Barca have now dropped eight points from their last nine games. The timing has played a part -- this game without Atlético in the UCL on the horizon might have been different, as might the Clásico; just as an opponent other than Eibar at home might have given Madrid more trouble– but Barcelona’s part in their own downfall is indisputable.

Against Villarreal, they were 2-0 up before replacing Piqué with Jeremy Mathieu, thinking it was all but finished, and they drew 2-2 thanks to his shoddy defending. Against Madrid, they had the lead and fell apart in the last 20 minutes physically. Winning that would have ended everything, but they did not. It may not have seemed to matter, but it did. Barcelona have breathed life back into their opponents.

It’s no coincidence that Barcelona’s dip in form has coincided with the poor play of Leo Messi. Between January and March, Messi scored his way back into contention for the Pichichi, with 16 goals in his first 13 league games of 2016, complemented by three European strikes in two matches against Arsenal.

The Argentine returned from the March international break poised to notch his 500th career goal, yet rather than hitting that milestone swiftly, as seemed probable, he has instead ground to a halt, now failing to find the back of the net in his last four matches, his worst run since 2009.

Back in Madrid, everyone’s mind was on Tuesday’s Champions League match against Wolfsburg, much less the league. Zidane revealed as much with his lineup card -- no Gareth Bale, no Karim Benzema, no Luka Modric, no Toni Kroos, no Keylor Navas -- but it didn’t matter. Madrid cruised to a 4-0 victory, but all people after the game were talking about was the remontada.

They call it a remontada – comeback – and it holds a special place in Madrid's hearts. The words of forward Juanito in April 1986 are now the stuff of legend. Madrid had been beaten 3-1 by Internazionale in the first leg of a UEFA Cup tie, and afterwards Juanito warned Madrid's opponents in stone faced Italian: "Noventi minuti en el Bernabéu son molto longo."

Ninety minutes in the Bernabéu is a very long time. Madrid went on to win that 2nd leg 4-1, and now, whenever they are down going back to the Bernabeu, they invoke the spirit of a player whose words are given added symbolism because he died in a car crash in 1992.

Madrid have not always played well this season, especially away, but they have now won six in a row, getting hot at the perfect time.

Across the Manzanares River, Atletico have gone streaking themselves. Winners of six of their last seven, their only loss came at Sporting Gijón – a game where, exhausted, and given practically no rest time, they seemed to be trying to reserve some energy for bigger opponents to come. Of the three sides, they have been the most consistent, dominating sides with the resurgent play of Fernando Torres and Koke.

Now, six games remain.

When factoring in head-to-head tiebreakers, Barcelona claims the crown over both sides effectively making their lead 4 and 5 points. On the surface, nobody faces a daunting schedule, though Madrid’s may be the toughest.

In the end it may be all about Europe. Whoever advances in the Champions League will continue to sandwich pressure packed mid-week games between the league on the weekends. Fatigue, both mental and physical, is sure to take hold. The one with the clear head and ultimate fitness is sure to have a leg up. For the team who went 39 games without defeat this all seemed simply impossible, but that team has now lost two of three, and drawn the other.

The advantage is theirs, but the heat is increasing and Andres Iniesta knows it

“It’s getting tighter every day,” he said. “We had that cushion to ‘allow’ us to make mistakes, but we’ve nearly used it all up now”.

In a week when everyone was thinking only about the Champions League, Spain sneaked back in and said “here I am.”

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