MADRID (AP) — How quickly things changed for the top two clubs fighting for the Spanish league title.
It wasn’t long ago that everything seemed to go Atlético Madrid’s way. It was the team to beat and it held a comfortable lead at the top. There were no signs it could be caught.
Barcelona, meanwhile, was struggling on and off the field, enduring political turmoil and experiencing lackluster results. There were no signs it could return to the top.
But the clubs enter the final stretch of the season in contrasting situations, with Atlético slumping and Barcelona gaining momentum.
Both teams were eliminated in the round of 16 of the Champions League, but Barcelona has won four in a row in the league while Atlético has only two wins in its last six matches.
The Catalan club has moved within four points of Atlético ahead of the weekend matches, when Atlético hosts relegation-threatened Alavés on Sunday and Barcelona later visits fifth-place Real Sociedad. Defending champion Real Madrid is six points off the lead and remains in contention, although its focus will be divided with the Champions League.
There will be 10 league games left for each team after the weekend, with Atlético seeking its first title since 2014 and Barcelona its third in four seasons. The Catalan club will host Atlético in May.
Barcelona, with a new president in place after several months of political turmoil, was eliminated by Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League despite playing well in the second leg a week ago. Atlético was ousted by Chelsea on Wednesday after losing both legs.
“Our fans must be upset and disappointed,” Atlético coach Diego Simeone said. “But we have to reset and think about what’s ahead for us. We have to learn and improve and continue with the same dedication and enthusiasm.”
Simeone on Wednesday had to answer questions about Luis Suárez, who had been leading the team after joining from Barcelona this season but was upset after being substituted early in the second half in London.
“It’s normal that he wanted to keep playing,” Simeone said. “We felt that we could improve the dynamic of the attack so we made the change.”
Atlético’s struggles coincided with some COVID-19 cases within the team and the absences of some players because of injuries and suspensions. Simeone was forced to experiment with different tactical formations and the team didn’t adapt quickly. Its usually stout defense faltered and at one point the team endured its worst streak conceding goals since Simeone took over nearly a decade ago.
The league is the only title Atlético can still win this season, while Barcelona is still competing in the Copa del Rey, where it will face Athletic Bilbao in the April 17 final. Barcelona last season went without a title for the first time since 2007-08.
MADRID STILL ALIVE
Real Madrid is coming off two consecutive 1-1 draws in the league — at Atlético and against Sociedad — but the team coached by Zinedine Zidane enters its Saturday match against Celta Vigo boosted by its return to the Champions League quarterfinals after two consecutive eliminations in the round of 16. It defeated Atalanta 3-1 on Tuesday to advance 4-1 on aggregate.
Fourth-place Sevilla, sitting three points behind Madrid, visits Valladolid on Saturday. Sevilla has nine-point gap to Sociedad in the final Champions League qualification spot.
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