Barcelona still facing challenge for title from Atletico
BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Barcelona will have to fight for the Spanish league title after all.
The Catalan club hosts Atletico Madrid on Sunday in a match that will likely go a long way to deciding the championship race.
Leader Barcelona, coming off three draws in its last five league games, will defend a five-point lead over second-place Atletico, which has won eight straight in all competitions.
“It will be an attractive match in which the three points will be worth a lot,” Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde said Saturday. “Winning the points will be important even though there will be a lot of games left in the league. We will prepare for this match as if it was a final because that’s how you should prepare for every match against Atletico.”
A month ago, Barcelona was 11 points clear at the top and appeared to have a clear path to the title.
Now it needs to win to restore its cushion and be able to focus on the return leg of its Champions League round-of-16 tie with Chelsea. The teams drew 1-1 at Stamford Bridge in the first leg.
The match against Atletico always promised to be a tight contest between the two top teams in Spain this season, but one whose result would probably not sway the title odds. Now that title could be on the line.
“The game will be decided by details, as it always happens when these two teams play against each other,” Atletico coach Diego Simeone said. “Barcelona is having a fantastic season.”
Atletico arrives in great form, having scored 16 goals in six consecutive league wins while only conceding twice, both insignificant goals in the final minutes of a 5-2 victory at Sevilla.
Barcelona, meanwhile, has hit a bad patch, apparently worn down by its advance to the Copa del Rey final and the first leg of its Champions League test with Chelsea.
Barcelona drew 1-1 at relegation-threatened Las Palmas, after also being held 0-0 by Getafe and 1-1 by Espanyol.
The match will pit the top attack against the stingiest defense in Spain.
Fueled by Lionel Messi’s competition-best 23 goals, Barcelona leads the league with 69 goals scored while also having its second-best defense with 13 goals conceded.
Trying to stop Messi will be Atletico goalkeeper Jan Oblak, who has only allowed 11 goals through 26 rounds.
“There is no strategy to stop Lionel,” Simeone said.
Although not as consistently superb as Messi has been all season, Atletico’s Antoine Griezmann is on an excellent scoring run. The France forward scored a hat trick against Sevilla last Sunday and scored four goals against Leganes on Wednesday.
“We will have to be careful with him,” Valverde said. “We hope he saves his goals for some other time.”
Diego Costa has also given Atletico’s attack a boost since his return to the club in January. The former Chelsea striker has netted five goals in nine games overall.
Barcelona striker Luis Suarez is also in fine form recently, and is second to Messi in scoring in the league with 20 goals.
While Simeone has found his first-choice lineup, Valverde will need to choose whether to opt for Philippe Coutinho’s playmaking, Paulinho’s knack for scoring or Ousmane Dembele’s speed.
Barcelona hasn’t lost to Atletico in 15 consecutive league matches. But that statistic is deceptive and distorts what has become one of the best rivalries in Spain, one that pits Barcelona’s sophisticated passing-based attack against the no-nonsense physical play of Atletico.
Atletico eliminated Barcelona from the Champions League quarterfinals in 2015-16 and 2013-14, and its 1-1 draw at Barcelona in a winner-take-all clash in the season’s final round earned it the 2014 Spanish league title.
Now Atletico wants to take the full three points and inject some drama into the final stages of the season.
“When you look at the numbers, it’s virtually impossible to win La Liga against Barcelona and Real Madrid,” Simeone said. “But we have made it possible. The goal is to arrive in the final five rounds with chances.”
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