(Reuters) – Atletico Madrid began their La Liga title chase with a sprint before ceding ground and almost losing their balance but they head into the deciding weekend with the finish line in sight, trying to stay ahead of a valiant but exhausted Real Madrid.
After a nerve-shredding 2-1 win over Osasuna last Sunday, when Real were top of the table for 19 minutes, Atletico head to Real Valladolid on Saturday knowing a victory will ensure they lift their first league trophy in seven years.
But any slip up could be leapt upon by city rivals Real, who are two points behind and have a better head-to-head record than Atletico, meaning they will win the title if they beat Villarreal and their neighbours fail to win.
Atletico’s game at Valladolid will be anything but easy, with their opponents needing a win to stand a chance of avoiding relegation. Villarreal may seem like tougher opponents on paper for Real but they are set to rest many players in preparation for the Europa League final with Manchester United.
Atletico know the feeling of having a trophy swiped from their hands by Real all too well, after losing the 2014 Champions League final following a 93rd-minute Sergio Ramos equaliser and losing the 2016 final to their more illustrious neighbours on penalties.
History has looked like repeating itself on numerous occasions this season.
Powered by the goalscoring form of Luis Suarez, Atletico won 16 of their first 19 matches to take a 10 point lead over Real at the end of January with a game in hand.
But they began to wobble in February, when they conceded a last-minute equaliser to draw 2-2 at home to Celta Vigo before drawing and then losing to Levante.
They were on course for a significant win over Real in the derby before an 88th-minute Karim Benzema equaliser snatched a 1-1 draw.
Defeats by Sevilla and Athletic Bilbao in April allowed Barcelona and Real to trim Atletico’s advantage to two points, while Sevilla briefly turned the contest into a four-way race.
Real and Barca then both squandered chances to go top and Atletico, with the help of two late penalty misses from opponents plus Suarez’s late winner against Osasuna, have weathered the storm.
Real also deserve huge credit for taking the race to the wire despite suffering more than 60 injuries throughout the season.
“It has been a very long season, it’s been very tough, but we were lucky enough to make an excellent start,” Atletico president Enrique Cerezo told radio station Cadena Ser.
“We then had a slump but we’re in form again and hopefully we’ll have some more luck and win at Valladolid.”
(Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Christian Radnedge)