A “Must-win” game is a cliché that one might have used to describe this past Sunday’s match between Atlético Madrid and Real Madrid, if one does not fully understand the gravity of that match. “Must-win” is one of those infinitely haranguing sports clichés that, while spoken in voices of lofty timbre about battles between gladiators, not athletes, is ultimately a hollow phrase; a platitude used to save lazy writers and analysts the trouble of actually thinking about what a particular match may mean for either side. “Must-win” says nothing about that Sunday match.
There is no simple way to encapsulate all that the match, the most recent chapter in El Derbi Madrileño, meant for the two sides taking the pitch at Estadio Vicente Calderón. One of the more storied soccer rivalries in Europe, the (at least) bi-annual match had taken a backseat to El Clasico for a good decade or so, but that ended last year as Atléti beat Real 2-1 in the Copa Del Rey final at the Bernabeu. La Liga has felt like a two-man race in the past because it has been a race between two men.
The Diegos Costa and Simeone have ensured that, at least for the time being, there is a three-man race for the top of La Liga and the honor of being the best team in Spain. However, after Sunday’s 2-2 home draw with Madrid, Atléti’s dream of championship has never been further out of reach. With twelve matches left, Madrid sits at the top of the table with 64 points, Barça follows with 63 and Atléti is left in third with 61.
If Atléti has any chance at seizing the title, Barça may prove to be the key to their success. El Derbi is in the books for this year, but both of the Madrid clubs have La Liga matches left with Barça. While all three clubs still have challenges against teams like Athletic Bilbao, Villarreal and Real Sociedad left before a champion is crowned, the season will undoubtedly be decided by how the top three fare against each other.
On March 23, the next chapter of El Clasico will be written at the Bernabéu. The last time these two teams met, Barcelona was victorious at home, by a score of 2-1. This was also the last time Real Madrid lost in any competition. That was October 26th. In the five months that will have passed come their next match, Madrid has asserted themselves as not just the best team in Spain but also, arguably, the best team in Europe. Record transfer Gareth Bale has finally returned to full health, and even losing Ronaldo for three matches could not slow down the resurgent Blancos.
Meanwhile, both Barça and Atléti have struggled, comparatively. Most recently, Real Sociedad and Valencia both handed Barcelona shocking upsets, with the tilt against Valencia played at Camp Nou no less. Atléti’s embarrassments have come at Real’s hands, as they were bounced from the Copa Del Rey 5-0 on aggregate. Of course, this could prove a blessing in disguise: Real and Barça will face off for the Copa Del Rey final on April 19th, meaning both clubs will have one match’s worth of extra wear on their legs. The exhaustion of their foes may be Atlétí’s best hope for success.
Real Madrid has the inside track on the title, but the race is not over. If Atléti hopes to be the club that usurps Los Blancos, the enemy of their enemy will be their best friend. They need to continue to play their best football as the season draws to a close, but that will not be enough. They need Barcelona to beat Madrid later this month. It is not hard to believe that Atléti can finish the season without dropping another point. They will have to travel to Athletic Bilbao, Levante and Valencia, but outside of those tricky matches, their schedule is a cakewalk.
Given their schedule, a Barcelona victory on the 23rd could leave them at the top of the table come May 18th, the last day of the season. On that day they will be welcoming Atlético Madrid to Camp Nou. This could very well be the match that decides who walks away with the title in La Liga. Real Madrid sits in the driver’s seat for the time being. Atléti and Barça are breathing down their necks. There is a lot of football to be played in the next 76 days. The title may very well be decided on the 76th day.
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