Atletico wobble gives La Liga hope of exciting title race
Madrid (AFP) –
For only the second time since the start of October, Atletico Madrid dropped points in La Liga on Monday and when Real Madrid won the day after, the alarm bells started ringing.
"La Liga is alive," read the front page of AS on Tuesday, while Zinedine Zidane was asked in his post-match press conference the same night if a task that looked impossible suddenly felt more achievable.
Atletico's lead has been cut from 10 points to five in the space of a week, even if that is due in part to the calendar, with Real Madrid now two matches ahead of their city rivals instead of one.
If Atletico, Barcelona and Sevilla all took maximum points from games in hand, Atletico would be 11 clear of Barca and Real Madrid, 12 ahead of Sevilla.
But the table, for now at least, appears closer, making it easier to inject some much-needed tension into a title race that for several weeks has felt increasingly cut and dried.
The drama, though, hinges on the possibility of an Atletico downturn, the type of hypothetical that coaches and players prefer not to engage with.
Zidane answered on Tuesday by insisting "nothing has changed", while Diego Simeone has made a habit of responding to any question about the title by simply naming Atletico's next opponent.
"Sevilla," he replied to Spanish television channel Movistar last month, before promptly walking off.
The gap could well narrow further. It is likely Atletico will not keep up their current pace, given that would mean a finishing total of 97 points, more than any La Liga champion since 2013, when Barcelona reached 100 on the back of Lionel Messi scoring 46 league goals.
Whether a deceleration would cost them the title will depend by how much they slow down and, perhaps more importantly, whether Real Madrid or Barca can capitalise, by showing the kind of consistency that up to this point has evaded them.
- Atletico's rise overlooked -
Yet in the interim, with all the focus on the possibility of a collapse or comeback, Atletico's rise has perhaps been overlooked.
Their latest ascent under Simeone has seen them leave behind last season's doubts about making the top four and bypass becoming just title contenders.
The problem with runaway leaders is everything begins to feel repetitive. In the Premier League, Jurgen Klopp reacted angrily last week when asked by Sky if Liverpool, adrift of Manchester City, could still win the league.
"The only thing you want to talk about all the time is us becoming champions," said Klopp. "Let's talk about the situation. If you're not interested then I don't understand why we talk."
Atletico are one of those clubs that keeps disappointment as part of its DNA. A club that was relegated in 2000, went 14 years without winning the Madrid derby and then reached the Champions League final, twice, only to lose both times, to Real Madrid.
Yet the focus on future failure overlooks remarkable progress in the present.
Atletico have lost one league game in just over a year. They are ahead of two clubs whose revenue is usually twice as high as their own. They have lost several hugely influential players but rebuilt, and come again.
Whether current success proves temporary or longer-lasting remains to be seen given Real Madrid have the bit between their teeth again, facing Valencia on Sunday, looking for a third consecutive win.
Barcelona were beaten by Sevilla in the cup on Wednesday but in the league have registered six victories on the bounce, with Alaves to come at home on Saturday.
Atletico, meanwhile, travel to Granada, hoping to preserve their advantage and to deter the excitement of a closer race a little longer.
Fixtures (times GMT)
Celta Vigo v Elche (2000)
Granada v Atletico Madrid (1300), Sevilla v Huesca (1515), Eibar v Real Valladolid (1730), Barcelona v Alaves (2000)
Getafe v Real Sociedad (1300), Real Madrid v Valencia (1515), Levante v Osasuna (1730), Villarreal v Real Betis (2000)
Cadiz v Athletic Bilbao (2000)
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