Pitchside

Who will win La Liga’s most thrilling title race?

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Atletico Madrid will be champions of Spain this Sunday if they win at home to Malaga and Barcelona don't win at Elche. If, if, if.

If they both win, then the league will go to the final game of the season, when Barcelona play Atletico Madrid at Camp Nou on Sunday May 18. So let's put it another way: if Barcelona win their remaining two games then they'll retain the league, even if they finish on the same points as Atelti. That's because by winning the final game of the season, they'd have a superior head-to-head record having drawn the league game in Madrid.

Barca and Atletico have already met five times this season, with four draws and that one single-goal Champions League win for Atletico which saw them reach the semi-finals.

It could be Atletico's greatest ever season and they're now in the Lisbon final against neighbours Real Madrid, who could have ruined their season by winning the league and a 10th European Cup. Yet Madrid's 1-1 draw at Valladolid on Wednesday night - after conceding an 85th-minute equaliser to cancel out Sergio Ramos's opener - has all but knocked them out of the title race. They can only reach 90 points and Atletico can go past that on Sunday. Atletico also have a superior head-to-head record against Madrid.

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It's the best finish in years and one in the eye for those who said that Spain's La Liga was like the Scottish league in the sun. Even if they end this season trophyless, Atletico Madrid have done what few expected - they've broken the duopoly of the big two. They've gone toe-to-toe with giants on an annual wage bill of €64 million. Barca and Madrid pay players four times as much.

Every team is teetering on the brink. Atletico lost 2-0 at Levante at the weekend, while Barça and Madrid both only managed home draws against Getafe and Valencia. Real Madrid only rescued a point after a sublime backheel from Ronaldo.

All have had enough chances to make the title their own, but they've all faltered at several stages this season. After four seasons when the Spanish league champions have reached between 96-100 points, the final tally is going to be lower this year. Good. The two-team dominance didn't do the league any favours. It has become a three-team dominance this year and the gap between Madrid in third and Athletic Bilbao in fourth is 16 points, but it's an improvement.

There are other fascinating permutations. Atletico will win the league with two draws but could lose it with a win and a loss. Or, the maddest of all, Atletico lose to Malaga, Barca beat Elche and Real Madrid win their last two. That would mean that in the last game, Atletico would need to win to lift the title, Barca would need to win to lift the title, while a draw would see Real Madrid crowned champions.

Spain has seen some dramatic final title days in recent years. In the 1990s, Real Madrid twice lost the league title at Tenerife on the final day – effectively handing the title to Barcelona on both occasions.

In 1992, Madrid let a 2–0 half-time lead slip and were beaten 3–2. Spain’s leading sports paper Marca, always hungry for a conspiracy theory, dedicated the next day’s entire front page to accusing the Galician referee of being ‘bent’.

Incredibly, the next season Real Madrid again lost the league at Tenerife on the final day of the season, losing 2–0 as their players wilted under the heat of the sun and the islanders’ hostility. Tenerife were managed by the erudite Argentinian Jorge Valdano, who told his players to take up the challenge of defeating a team that had "all the prestige of history on its side" before the game. They did.

In 1994, Barca’s attempt to win a fourth consecutive league championship appeared stymied by Deportivo, leaders of the Spanish league all season and seemingly destined to lift their first title. Ahead of Barcelona by a point on the final day of the season, the Galicians faced a mediocre Valencia side at home. Also at home, Barca beat Sevilla 5-2. In La Coruna, the score remained goalless until the 89th minute when Depor won a penalty. Bebeto, their usual penalty taker, spurned the chance of immortality and defender Miroslav Djukic instead shot tamely towards the keeper. Barca were champions.

There could be a repeat of such drama and every team has compelling reasons to win the title. Barca for Tito Vilanova - and to prove everyone wrong who has doubted them after the most turbulent season in the club's recent history.

Barca won the league by 15 points last season. This term they've been banned and sanctioned, they've seen a president step down amid allegations of criminal behaviour over the transfer of a yet to be fully proven player, Neymar. They've lost their hugely respected former manager to cancer and the world's best player hasn't reached his usual stellar levels.

Atletico because they've been building up to this since the brilliant Diego Simeone took charge. He's one of the few who doesn't think they're the surprise team in football this season, though he knows his side is the one the neutrals want to win, the team who play like a great British side.

Then there's Real Madrid, who'd love to stop their main rivals becoming champions. They'd be able to gloat like never before. And they could still win the treble. A tenth European Cup would be doubly sweeter because it will be achieved against their cross-city rivals.

Andy Mitten - @AndyMitten

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