This season’s Premier League title race has been described as the most exciting, an exhilarating ride in which the outcome, even at this stage, is difficult to tell. If that’s the case, if this truly is the best title race in Premier League history, then what’s going on in Spain is absolutely glorious.
On Sunday morning, Real Madrid woke up as La Liga leaders. By Thursday, after two defeats, they were third. Sunday’s third place team, Atletico Madrid, are now top of the pile.
Do greater numbers always equate to a more thrilling spectacle? Isn’t the Premier League title race shaped roughly in the way most would have expected prior to the season starting? Arsenal knocked out of the race and now battling for fourth; Chelsea very much back in the thick of things for the first time since Carlo Ancelotti’s time in west London thanks to the return of Jose Mourinho; and Manchester City’s quality in depth sure to take advantage of the two games in hand they currently have. The only thing surprising is Manchester United’s absence, which goes hand-in-hand with Liverpool’s involvement.
Sure, this one could go right down to the wire; it probably will. But we’ve seen it before. What we haven’t seen is a Spanish title race that can sell itself on the same premise. The final game of Atletico Madrid’s league season sees them travel to Barcelona.
It may be a hard slug to try and find parallels to those who are considered the outsiders in each of these leagues: Atletico and Arsenal. Arsene Wenger’s side don’t have the grit and steel of Diego Simeone’s team. Wenger has the larger quantity of playmakers and individuals capable of moments of brilliance. Simeone has a group who work as a unit and who have been moulded to take their chances when they come and hold firm for ninety minutes.
There is desperation in Arsenal’s need for a trophy. We’re led to understand that Wenger’s future will be decided upon the outcome of the FA Cup. For Atletico, it would be a tremendous shame if they failed to add another piece of silverware to Simeone’s three already won with the club.
But despite being league leaders, possessing one of the most in-form strikers in Europe and showing the ability to get results against some of the biggest names in football – wins against Real Madrid, AC Milan, and unbeaten in three against Barcelona this season – Atletico are very much the underdogs in this title race.
Their first XI is excellent; their backups, not so much, shown by Simeone’s reluctance to rotate. The manager was said to have broken up this season into two, separated by the winter break. From January onwards, it was a new season. He wanted his best XI to go out and win the 19-game season.
The thing is Simeone’s XI will only go so far. It may be an odd thing to say that Atletico have a better chance of winning the Champions League than they do La Liga, but they’re a team set up for the big occasion. At their best, they’re capable of beating anyone. Over the remaining stretch of league games, you feel they’ll be found out by the other two sides, especially Barcelona, who hold much stronger squads.
Arsenal, similarly, for a long period of this season looking to finally break the drought with the league title, have a far better chance of silverware in the cup competition. Yes it helps that Wigan, Sheffield United and Hull don’t pose the kind of threat found in European competition or at the top of the Premier League, but it’s more to say that both clubs, who either have or are promising so much in a title race, can still find much success elsewhere.
Their limitations over the course of a 38-game season are clear. Neither have the resources to maintain the level of excellence needed to combat clubs like Manchester City, Chelsea, Barcelona, and Real Madrid. Both have had considerable setbacks, though Arsenal’s, obviously, have been amplified due to the occasion.
Games against Athletic Bilbao, Valencia and Barcelona as the last game of the season could see Atletico with nothing to show for their involvement in this season’s La Liga title race. Like Arsenal, though, who have a fantastic chance of possibly ending Wenger’s tenure with the club in the FA Cup, Atletico’s season can be defined by what they do away from league play. Dark horses? Without doubt. Atletico have as good a chance as any of the remaining teams of lifting the European Cup in May.