Zinedine Zidane and Real Madrid aiming to avoid late drama and win La Liga from arch-rivals Barcelona

Los Blancos will seal title by beating VIllarreal on Thursday

Stranger things have happened at the tail end of a Spanish Liga race than the sort of reversal that might yet see Barcelona retain their title.

It could still turn into a drama like, say, 1991-92, when Real Madrid went to Tenerife on the last day as leaders, took a 2-0 lead and then lost it, gifting the championship to Barca.

Or Madrid could yet be overcome by the sort of jitters they suffered the following year, again in Tenerife, where they lost the final match, and with it their top place, Barcelona the beneficiaries.

One of two in the Barcelona dressing-room, such as Gerard Pique, a Barca fan from birth, are just about old enough to remember those legendary turnarounds.

Lionel Messi, meanwhile, can recall vividly the 2006-07 suspense, when, neck and neck on matchday 38, Madrid went 1-0 down to Mallorca, while Barcelona were cruising to three points. A Real comeback snatched the title from Barca only on a head-to-head countback.

There are few, though, in the Barca dressing-room who truly believe that the momentum that has carried Madrid past Barcelona in the table to go into tonight’s penultimate games four points clear is about to dramatically stall. “You have to be honest,” said striker Luis Suarez. “The title is almost impossible now.”

It could be over by just before midnight, Spanish time, on Thursday, the penultimate matchday. If, when the final whistle is blown at the Alfredo Di Stefano stadium, Madrid’s temporary home, the hosts have extended their winning run to 10 games at the expense of Villarreal, Madrid are champions.

It would be all tied up in any circumstances if Barcelona fail to beat Osasuna at Camp Nou. The gap between the old enemies is four points, but effectively five because of Madrid’s better head-to head yield from the two clasicos.

Since the shutdown, Madrid have been almost impeccable: Maximum points, just three goals conceded in nine games and a 100 per cent record from the four penalties they have been awarded since the June restart.

Barcelona have had some spot-kicks too, but the weight of points gained by Madrid from the penalty spot, and the fact that they escaped a possible penalty against them against Athletic Bilbao on matchday 34 has been, predictably, the focus of complaints from the defending champions, including some from the Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu.

Suarez, speaking to Sport newspaper, preferred to move beyond confected controversies. “We have to look ourselves," he said. "It is us who let this league slip away. We are not looking for excuses.”

When the season was suspended, because of the Covid-19 crisis in March, Barcelona held a two-point lead over Madrid, with 11 games left on the calendar.

Barca had reasons to feel positive at the restart. Suarez, who had undergone surgery soon after new year, would be available for June, having been all but ruled out for April and May; a team built around several players over the age 30 had been allowed some rest during the shutdown.

Barcelona then lost top spot after a 0-0 draw at Sevilla, and dropped more points in two of their next three games. The die was cast, according to Suárez. “The Sevilla match made things hard, although we had chances to go ahead there. But the key game was in Vigo.”

Barcelona twice went in front against Celta Vigo, and twice Celta equalised, sealing a 2-2 draw in the 88th minute via a set-piece. “That’s when we lost our big chance,” Suarez said. “Had we beaten Celta, things would have gone better against Atletico.”

Atletico Madrid came to Camp Nou and twice came back from a goal down for another 2-2 draw.

For a club that has become prickly about the habit of capitulation, it is an uncomfortable narrative – a slow-burn, hot-summer version of throwing away a 3-0 lead in a European Cup final, as Barcelona did on the way to losing 4-3 to Liverpool last season.

Or squandering a 4-1 lead, as Barcelona did before being knocked out by Roma in the Champions League quarter-final of 2018.

The veterans – such as Suarez, Pique and Messi – might reluctantly own up that the habit of late-term stumbling had already started in 2015-16. In that Liga race, they were 10 points clear with eight games to go and ended up squeezing over the line to win the title by one point over Madrid on the last day.

Madrid, in their first full season under Zinedine Zidane, went on to win La Liga in 2016-17. It was Zidane’s first league title as a manager. His second, in this, the first full season of eh Frenchman's second spell in the job, is just one more efficient victory, or two cagey draws away.

Published: July 16, 2020 07:04 AM

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