Camp Nou hosts the most important game in Spanish football so far this season on Sunday, Barcelona against Atletico Madrid, first against second. Barca were 11 points clear of Atletico a month ago, with Real Madrid long forgotten about in the title race. Now, the gap is down to five.
Long praised for their tight defence under Diego Simeone, Atletico have the best defence in Europe this season, conceding only 11 goals in 26 league games so far. Real Madrid have let in 28. Yet nobody really considered Simeone's side to be true title challengers; Barca were unbeaten and still are, but they have started drawing matches, most surprisingly at relegation-threatened Las Palmas on Thursday night.
Controversial refereeing decisions didn't help, but Barcelona's dip in form has been evident in recent matches. Getafe came to Camp Nou three weeks ago and were worthy of their 0-0 draw. The Madrid side were compact, very well organised and created chances of their own. The previous week, Barca were held by Espanyol. That result looks a good one, given Espanyol beat Real Madrid this week and have been the only team to beat Atletico so far this season in the league.
That 1-0 defeat – Espanyol have beaten all the big three (Barca were bested in the cup) 1-0 with goals in the last two minutes in each of the games – came in December. Atletico have not stopped winning since. Their last six games have been victories, allowing them to close the gap at the top. They are by far La Liga’s form team.
Another victory on Sunday will cut the gap on Barca to a scant two points. No wonder many in the Spanish media are screaming "Hay Liga!" (The league is on) while extolling the virtues of a genuine title race rather than the one horse ones in England, Germany and France.
Atletico were the first team to take points off Barca this season when they drew 1-1 in October. The Catalans had won their previous seven games to establish a lead that nobody had come close to closing – until now.
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Atletico's challenge has been powered by their rock-solid defence, which has kept a clean sheet in 15 of their last 20 games. But their attack is formidable, too. Simeone's men put five past Sevilla in the Sanchez Pizjuan days after Manchester United had struggled to make five chances, let alone find the net. Antoine Griezmann scored a hat-trick. Atletico then scored four this week without reply at home against Leganes, Griezmann going one better with all four.
The Frenchman is playing like the talismanic striker long coveted by United and Barcelona. His 10 league goals in his last seven league games – albeit that statistic is heavily skewed by his seven goals this week – made him the first Atletico player to score hat-tricks in consecutive games for 80 years. The autumnal grumbles which surrounded his form – and that of the whole team – after a limp showing in the Uefa Champions League – have long dissipated.
Atleti fans are not convinced that Griezmann will be at the club next season, and Barca officials did meet his parents in Catalonia at the end of 2017, but the fear of losing their best players is nothing new for Atletico.
Diego Costa, for example, went to Chelsea, but as he showed after his experience in England, the grass is not always greener. Costa is a major reason why Griezmann is doing so well and the pair have clicked since the Spaniard was allowed to play again after Atletico’s transfer ban ended at the end of 2017. That ban was also the reason why Griezmann changed his mind and decided to stay at the club last summer. Atletico’s exit from the Champions League was surprising, but they now have no distractions as their stars are aligning at the right time in La Liga.
They have not been afraid to attack Barca from the start at Camp Nou in previous season, and given their form and quality, they could do the same on Sunday. If they win, a gripping title race will ensue in Spain not to be found anywhere else in Europe's top leagues.