Football

Atletico Madrid bar Barcelona's path to La Liga glory

Luis Enrique has led Barcelona to within touching distance of the La Liga title in his first season in charge.
Luis Enrique has led Barcelona to within touching distance of the La Liga title in his first season in charge. REUTERS/Albert Gea

Barcelona will be crowned champions of Spain for the 23rd time on Sunday night if they win against Atletico Madrid. It could be the first silverware of a treble for Luis Enrique's side.

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Five days after reaching the Uefa Champions League final, Barcelona can wrap up the La Liga title.

But the Catalans have a tough assignment on Sunday night at the Vicente Calderon against Atletico Madrid, who also need a win to ensure third place and direct entry to next season's Uefa Champions League.

If Barcelona slip up, second placed Real Madrid can close the gap to one point if they take all three points at Espanyol.

That scenario would set up a nervous final day for both sides. Barcelona host struggling Deportivo La Coruna on 23 May while Real Madrid entertain Getafe.

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La Liga is Real Madrid's only chance of silverware this season. The holders of the title were eliminated from the Champions League on Wednesday following a 1-1 draw at the Santiago Bernabeu against Juventus.

The Italians progressed 3-2 on aggregate to next month's final at the Olympiastadion in Berlin.

The defeat leaves the position of Real coach Carlo Ancelotti in a precarious state. But the 55-year-old Italian has lost key players.

"Real Madrid have been hugely disappointing since the start of the year," said Jonathan Wilson, editor of the football magazine The Blizzard. "The transfer policy last summer was flawed - a lot of people thought so at the time. Xabi Alonso who linked so well in midfield with Luka Modric was allowed to go to Bayern Munich. There might have been a feeling at Madrid that at the age of 32 that his legs were starting to go. But for the first half of the season he was great at Bayern.

"He's somebody who is capable of making tackles, winning the ball back and he's a phenomenally good passer of the ball."

Wilson added that the departure of the Argentine international Angel di Maria to Manchester United was also a mistake.

"He was man of the match in the Champions League final that Real won. He worked really well in the Real Madrid set up. He linked the midfield to the forward line and to lose him because he appears to be less marketable than someone like James Rodriguez seems to be emblematic of the way that Real Madrid have gone. They seem to place marketability above tactical coherence"

Sunday night will see whether Real will pay the price for that lack of vision. Barcelona, by contrast, appear to have made their structural switch more effectively.

The arrival of striker Luis Suarez from Liverpool and midfielder Ivan Rakitic from Sevilla have transformed their play. In contrast to Xavi Hernandez, Rakitic, says Wilson, appears instinctively keener to look for a forward pass while Suarez is comfortable running with the ball at his feet.

"You think of Barcelona as masters of the pass, which they still are," Wilson said. "But in Lionel Messi, Neymar and Suarez, they have three players who can dribble with the ball. There's now this feeling about the team of 'get it to one of the front three and see what happens'."

And what has transpired this season has been spectacular. The troika have piled up 114 goals between them in all competitions. That potency means Barca prepare for the Champions League final against Juve and the Copa del Rey final on 30 May against Athletic Bilbao as hot favourites.

Success on Sunday night at Atletico Madrid, the side that pipped them to the title last season, could be the start of an impressive triple crown.

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