Pep Guardiola once said, “League titles are won in the last eight games.” With only eight league games remaining in 20/21, we are in the home stretch of one of the most exciting La Liga races in recent memory. Atlético Madrid sit first with 67 points; Real Madrid are second with 66; Barcelona third with 65. The champion is truly anyone’s guess.
Compared to previous years, La Liga has been uncharacteristically unpredictable this season, with plenty of fluidity and movement in the table. No team has been consistent the entire season, resulting in what will surely be a hectic final few weeks. With the season set for an exciting finish, there is plenty to unpack.
Atlético Madrid’s Fall from Grace
Atlético’s Madrid’s season has been the textbook definition of a “fall from grace.” They started off the season sweltering and full of energy, as their typical defensive-minded approach was thrown out the window in exchange for a more expansive and attacking brand of football. Los Rojiblancos looked set to win their first league title since 2014.
They were undefeated in their first nine matches, including beating Barcelona 1-0. After losing the derby to Real Madrid in early December, they regained form and went on a blistering run, proceeding to win eight straight games. Consequently, they have been league leaders since November 28, 2020.
In January, they were 11 points clear at the top of the table, but their lead has lessened ever since. Following February 8, they have only won 17 out of a possible 33 points, drawing five times and losing twice. Their slip in form can be partly attributed to injuries and a Coronavirus outbreak midseason, but it is also a story of losing momentum and reverting to their old ways.
Currently, Atlético find themselves only one point clear of second-place Real Madrid. They have scored 52 goals so far this season in the league (ranked third) and are headlined by leading goalscorer Luis Suárez with 19. Defensively, they have the best record in the league, only conceding 20 goals.
In terms of their “big” league games this season, which in this case would be against the current top five sides (Real Madrid, Barça, Sociedad, and Sevilla), Atlético have won thrice, lost twice, and drawn once.
Looking ahead, Atlético’s schedule is demanding. Although six of their remaining eight opponents are in the bottom half of the table, the opposition is better than they look. They play Barcelona on May 9, fifth place Sociedad the following week, as well as tough-outs with Athletic Bilbao and Real Valladolid.
With the top of the table as congested as it is, Los Rojiblancos will have to regain their early-season form in order to finish as champions. Even though they are first right now, the form indicates that their first-place position can easily slip out of their hands. To make matters worse, the injury bug has bitten them again as Luís Suarez is set for a lengthy spell on the sidelines.
Real Madrid’s Resurgence
Real Madrid’s season has been the complete opposite of Atlético’s — a slow start has developed into a hot finish. In their first eleven games, Los Blancos only won five games, drew twice, and lost three times. That placed them fourth in the table, and it looked like the defending champs would not repeat their title.
Since then, something has clicked, and they have been on an impressive run. From early December to today, Real have only lost once and have won a possible 49 out of 60 points.
Along with Barça, Real are the hottest team in Spain right now, having won four on the trot. They have the second-most goals in the league with 53 and are tied for the second-best defensive record. Despite the several injuries they have sustained this season, Karim Benzema has continued to solidify himself as their most important player and talisman. The Frenchman has tallied 19 goals and six assists in the league.
Their remaining eight matches are filled with tough opponents, but Real have proven themselves capable of stepping up whenever they need to. Against the current top five teams in the league, Real have beaten Barcelona twice, beaten Atlético and drawn with them once, drawn twice with Sociedad, and beaten Sevilla. Their notable remaining opponents include Sevilla on May 9 and teams who can grind out a result, like Getafe, Athletic Bilbao, and Real Betis, who just drew with Atlético.
After winning this past weekend’s El Clásico, their title hopes are as high as ever, but Real still have a long road ahead.
Barcelona’s Tale of Two Selves
While Barcelona find themselves third in the table, they are still in a position to win their illustrious 27th La Liga title. The recent El Clásico loss was a hard blow and means the league is now out of their hands– they can win all remaining games but need the top two teams to slip up – but that shouldn’t take away from their magnificent turnaround.
The Catalans had a tumultuous first half of the season, full of controversy on and off the field. They won four of their first ten matches, lost four, and drew twice, including gut-punch losses to both Atlético Madrid and Real Madrid. After match-day 10, Barça sat fifth in the table.
After a particularly concerning loss to relegation-threatened Cadiz in December, the Catalans went on a scorching run, turning their season around. They won 51 out of 57 possible points, including an impressive 16 wins out of 19 matches. They were the hottest team in Europe until the loss in the Clásico.
The Blaugrana have the best attack in the league with 69 team goals, led by none other than league-leading goalscorer Lionel Messi (23 goals and 9 assists). In fact, a staggering 44% of their goals have involved Messi. Their defence is fourth-best in the league, having conceded 26 goals.
Despite stepping up in the second half of the season, a common thread throughout Barcelona’s 20/21 campaign has been their inability to step up in big games. In La Liga, they performed well against fourth-place Sevilla (one win, one draw) and fifth place Sociedad (two wins) but faltered against the Madrid sides, losing all three matchups.
As mentioned, the recent El Clásico loss was a huge blow to their title hopes, but the season isn’t over yet. Admittedly, they have some demanding games remaining, and the squad will have to bounce back from their weekend loss and make this a campaign to remember. Barça still have to face Getafe, Villarreal, Valencia, and Atlético Madrid on May 9 – which may be the most consequential game of the season.
All Eyes on matchday 35
May 9, or match-day 35, should be marked on everybody’s calendar. On that day, the top four sides will all face off against each other: 4th place Sevilla travel to 2nd place Real Madrid, and 1st place Atlético travel to 3rd place Barcelona. The results will undoubtedly have a direct impact on the champion, but before that, Barcelona have to keep themselves in the race.
Barcelona’s Title Hopes
To put it lightly, Barça’s title hopes were slim at the start of the season, and many were prepared for yet another underwhelming campaign. Yet, Ronald Koeman and the team have come together and put in an incredible run of form over the last few months. Messi continues to be at his world-conquering best, Koeman has made insightful tactical changes, elder statesmen like Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets are having renaissance seasons, and a myriad of youngsters such as Pedri, Ronald Araujo, and Oscar Mingueza have taken the team by storm.
Losing El Clásico showed that Barcelona still have a ways to go in order to win decisive games, but at least the team fought with intensity and vigour in the second half. Furthermore, the recent loss should not take away from their impressive run, although the league is now out of their hands.
In the meantime, Barcelona will travel to Sevilla this Sunday to play in the Copa del Rey final and hopefully, put an end to their year-long trophy drought.
With only eight games left, there is no room to slip up. Only three months ago, it looked like Atlético Madrid were bound to win their first league title in seven years, but their fall combined with Real and Barça’s resurgence has shaken things up. The form indicates that Real Madrid are currently favourites, even though they are in second place, but the Catalans will be hoping that they will falter due to still playing in the Champions League.
Barça have come a long way from their early-season selves. Despite the 2-1 loss to Real Madrid, they are a more unified team than ever before and have had stretches of play that can bring optimism to all Culés. They will need a little bit of luck to win the league at this stage, but in football, anything can happen.