Atletico Madrid and Barcelona both won at the weekend, keeping the gap between the undefeated Catalans and the capital club at 7 points. Atletico has done well to keep up with Barcelona considering the league leaders still look unlikely to go through a major slump before the season is over and the rest of the top 4 in La Liga have been less than impressive.
But do we have any reason to be interested in this title race? Or is the rest of the season just a formality for La Liga leaders Barcelona?
Let’s take a look at what the top 2 in Spain have accomplished so far this season to see if it tells us anything about how the rest of the season is going to play out.
UP TO THIS POINT
When it comes to losses, it’s close between these two clubs. Atletico maintained their own unbeaten streak in the league until they suffered a 1-0 loss away to an excellent Espanyol side (the same team that held Barcelona to a 1-1 draw recently) in December. Besides that, the difference between the two clubs has been the number of draws, with Barcelona only having 5 to Atletico’s 7.
That puts the Catalans at an excellent 2.58 points per game, while Atletico are behind at 2.29. But are either of these numbers sustainable? First, let’s see how the teams have done more recently, since we all know how Barcelona had a blistering start to the season. They only drew three times in their first 17 games, including away draws against Atletico Madrid and Valencia. That run also included a dominant 3-0 win over Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu to cap off a dominant 2017 for Barca.
But 2018 has seen them slip up two times already. Immediately after the 1-1 draw with Espanyol, Barca were held to a scoreless draw at home against Getafe, marking the first time this season that they were unable to score in a match. That puts them at a lower 2.43 points per game in 2018 (for the record, it was 2.65 for the period from August to December).
Meanwhile, Atletico brought their stats up from 2.12 points per game (August to December) to 2.71 points per game. It’s no wonder, as their main problem in 2017 was scoring goals, failing to score in four matches this season. But the return of Diego Costa after their transfer ban has coincided with Atleti’s strong 2018 form as the team look more resilient and more lethal in front of goal.
If both teams keep up their points per game in 2018, then it would see Barcelona finish only 4 points ahead of Atletico. But a title is a title, so should we even bother with the 14 games left this season?
BEWARE THE SLUMP
Of course we should. Because the fact is, both of these teams are playing out of their minds at the moment and someone has to slip up. Barca’s average points per game over the past 5 seasons is 2.43, while Atletico’s is 2.16, meaning Barca is actually farther from their average than Atletico. When you factor in upcoming matchups, it becomes obvious that anything could happen to throw a wrench in the title race.
Both of these clubs still have to face Villarreal, Sevilla, Real Madrid, and each other, which are games with no guaranteed outcomes. Barcelona does have more of these games at home, but they are headed into a tricky part of the season with Champions League ramping up again. A deep run could put more pressure on their already-tiring squad. Therefore, they will have to rely on new additions Coutinho and Yerry Mina quickly integrating into the team to provide sufficient cover.
Meanwhile, Atletico have already put their first Europa League tie to bed with a 4-1 away win to FC Copenhagen. Their main focus is staying competitive in the league, and the inclusion of Vitolo and Costa will only strengthen their squad and allow them keep up their good form.
Now this was a nice little game of “what-ifs,” but at the end of the day, the team that wins the title will be the one that most consistently strings together solid performances to keep up good results. Realistically, Barcelona will continue to dominate and cruise their way to another Liga title. But form can change seemingly overnight, so don’t count out any late season dramatics.
Remember when we all thought Barcelona would struggle after selling Neymar and Real Madrid were forming a dynasty? Those were the days.
All stats obtained from WhoScored.com