La Liga: Real have the momentum ahead of El Clasico title decider

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  • All to play for: Six matches left in La Liga.

    With six games left to play in Spain, which teams can still hope for a title or for a European berth, and which teams still have cause to be worried?

    Spain has a superstitious population and you may know that before the start of each season entire teams ritually visit some local religious shrine and leave an ‘ofrenda’ (an offering) to a particular saint or virgin, in the hope of a decent season to come. What relegation-threatened teams never do, as far as we know, is to re-visit the shrine with six games left to offer up another bunch of flowers, maybe thinking that the original bunch wasn’t colourful enough.

    Up at the top end, where there is less need for superstition and more need for consistency and maintenance, nothing is as yet decided. You might argue that the three direct routes into the Champions League are more or less clear, but Atlético Madrid cannot assume anything, with Sevilla only three points behind them, just as Sevilla themselves cannot relax if Villarreal defeat Alaves on Monday night and move to within five points of the fourth berth. Six games, and a gap of five points? Things often go berserk around Easter, form flies out of the window and some darling old granny from a sleepy village in Spain wins the football pools with a two euro stake.

    It would seem to be a time of despair, but in reality it’s a time of hope. Six games provide a potential eighteen points, and even bottom club Osasuna can fantasize. Two wins in the last three games has taken them to within ten points of stuttering Leganés, causing my local barman, a native of Pamplona, to suddenly change his tune.

    A month ago, when I asked him about Osasuna’s possibilities of escape, he shrugged philosophically and replied ‘nulas’ (none at all). Now, despite the 3-0 defeat at Atlético on Saturday, there’s a new spring in his step. He won’t admit it, but he’s dreaming the impossible dream.

    Granada, seven points adrift of the Leganés boat and Sporting de Gijón, bobbing in the water only five points behind them, have greater cause for optimism, but of course time will soon run out. In a poor year, 35 points is considered the minimum for safety, and Leganés (on 27 points) have three home games remaining, all of which they could reasonably be expected to win.

    Granada are now under the stewardship of the famous ex-Arsenal defender Tony Adams, whose tactical message to the press last week in his first official conference was to emphasise the fact that he intended to ‘kick a few people up the backside’. Well, judging by his disastrous home debut defeat to Celta (0-3), he’s going to have to kick a bit harder. Maybe at last, his nickname ‘the donkey’ will be of a certain use to him.

    Deportivo , the only other side who might have cause for worry, beat Málaga 2-0 on Saturday and can probably conclude that with a couple more wins they’ll be safe from the flames. Then, right up to Espanyol in 9th place, it’s probably a case of keeping up appearances and planning for the season to come. Espanyol’s last-minute winner at Leganés means that they themselves can still aspire to seventh place in the league, which may well be rewarded with a Europa League spot this season.

    Four further sides can aspire to the three spots – Eibar, Real Sociedad, Athletic Bilbao and Villarreal, the latter of course still in with a Champions League shout. If Celta’s game-in-hand (probably May 17th) were to result in a win over Real Madrid, you could also argue that they are long-shot aspirants too, to the Europa League.

    You’ll be interested to know that this article has so far managed over 600 words without a mention of next Sunday’s El Clasico, but the game fits neatly enough into 6-games-to-go framework. The commonest view here is that a Real Madrid victory would seal the title, whether Madrid lose their game in hand or not. Well – a six-point lead with five games to go (six for Madrid) would certainly look problematic for Barcelona, but you never know. Odd things happen at this stage, with opponents so often desperate, and happy to throw caution to the winds. But yes – the breeze seems to blowing in Real Madrid’s direction this season, after only one league title in the last eight.

    Barcelona’s house seems to be in need of a tidy-up. If one was to really look the Catalans in the eye, a defeat in the Bernabéu next week might even appear to threaten their runners-up place, with Atlético gathering steam below. Their 3-2 home win over Real Sociedad on Saturday night again exposed their defensive frailty, and the visitors were unlucky not to come away with something.

    An Isco-inspired Real Madrid also won 3-2, struggling at Sporting but once again winning in the 90th minute. This was the thirteenth time this season they have scored on 90 minutes or beyond, which certainly ticks their stamina box. It was also the 54th consecutive game in which they have scored one goal or more, which is pretty astonishing.

    So what will happen next Sunday night in the Bernabéu? The truth is that we don’t know. The clasico has a habit of ignoring the form books, and of suddenly changing the course of a season. It could happen, of course – with or without Neymar. What we do know for definite is that the game will be the culmination of a highly emotional week.

    Barcelona host Juventus on Wednesday hoping to overturn their 3-0 defeat and ‘do a PSG’, and unlikely though this looks, if it were to happen them just imagine the shot of morale it would provide for Sunday’s do-or-die encounter. Real Madrid’s hosting of Bayern on Wednesday is theoretically a simpler affair, after their meritorious 2-1 win in Germany last week, but the variables are still plentiful this week.

    Atlético Madrid certainly won’t be assuming anything as they travel to Leicester on Wednesday, guarding a flimsy 1-0 lead. It would be fantastic for Spain to have all three in the semi-finals, but if anything allows me to make a prediction it’s the current state of animus at the Camp Nou.

    The Barcelona faithful will be out in voice on Tuesday night, but Juventus are made of stronger stuff than PSG. Neither will Bayern lie down and die in the Bernabéu, but the results, the performances and the credit-debit that emerges from the cities of Madrid and Barcelona this week will surely influence the lie of the land next Sunday night – unless one of the teams smuggles a sneaky bunch of flowers into their local shrine the night before. It’s all to play for. Tie your seat-belts and hang on for the ride.