BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — The top four teams in the Spanish league meet this weekend in a round that promises to prove critical to the most tightly contested title fight in years.
Leader Atlético Madrid visits third-place Barcelona on Saturday, a day before second-place Real Madrid hosts fourth-place Sevilla.
Atlético is clinging to a two-point advantage over both Madrid and Barcelona, while Sevilla is six points adrift with four rounds remaining. Madrid holds head-to-head advantages over Atlético and Barcelona if they finish level on points.
While the title chase features Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez and Karim Benzema leading their respective teams, some of the added excitement to this season’s finale is due to the contenders’ flaws.
While Messi’s Barcelona has the top attack with 80 goals scored, compared to Atlético’s 61 and Madrid’s 58, its defense has proven brittle. Madrid, Atlético, and Sevilla, however, can all have nights when their attacks sputter.
Atlético had built a double-digit lead over its chasers after an excellent first half of the season. Its first league crown in seven seasons seemed theirs for the taking, only for Diego Simeone’s side to falter since the turn of the year. Only similar stumbles by Madrid and Barcelona, along with the goalkeeping of Jan Oblak and timely goals by Suárez and Marcos Llorente, have kept Atlético on top.
After struggling to adapt to new coach Ronald Koeman, Barcelona caught fire and went undefeated in 19 games until it lost to Madrid last month. Then came a humbling home loss to Granada last week that cost it the opportunity to take command of the title race.
Simeone knows how to win big matches against Barcelona. In 2014, his team entered a winner-take-all showdown at Camp Nou as leaders with Barcelona in second place. Atlético got the draw it needed to claim the title and break the hold Barcelona and Madrid had on the domestic competition.
They need a similar gritty performance on Saturday, but this time their goal will be a victory.
“We will play each of our four games left like a final,” Atlético forward Ángel Correa said on Thursday. “We know that each one will be difficult, but now we have to go to Barcelona and take the three points.”
Correa could start alongside Suárez, who is set to face his old team for the first time after he missed Atlético’s first clash with Barcelona this season due to a coronavirus infection.
Suárez leads his side with 19 goals, while Messi leads the entire league with 28.
Koeman will not be in the dugout for Barcelona as he serves the second of a two-game suspension for using inappropriate language when arguing with a referee in the Granada loss. Assistant coach Alfred Schreuder will again take his place after overseeing the team’s win at Valencia last round.
Against Sevilla, Madrid will try to bounce back from its 2-0 defeat at Chelsea on Wednesday that knocked it out of the Champions League semifinals on a 3-1 aggregate score.
Madrid’s veterans, which included Sergio Ramos and Eden Hazard both recently back from injury, were overrun by the fitter English side.
A win over Sevilla combined with an Atlético loss or draw would lift the defending champions into the lead.
“We have to recover and be ready to fight for the league title. It’s really important that we do that,” Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane said after the loss in London. “We’ve had a really good Champions League run and we were just one game away from the final. We’re not going to throw in the towel with four games to go now. We have to finish the season as strongly as we can.”
Sevilla will also be looking to recover from a costly 1-0 loss at Athletic Bilbao earlier this week, when a 90th-minute goal by Iñaki Williams ended Sevilla’s four-round winning streak and impeded it from further tightening the race.
Now Julen Lopetegui’s team most likely has to win at Madrid to keep its hopes alive of adding to its single league title from 1946.
“I think that we have put the very painful loss from the other day behind us,” Sevilla midfielder Joan Jordán said. “We know that this weekend is key for us to have the chance of doing something great.”
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