A fitting finale
Barcelona are a defeat from disaster while Atletico are two wins away from a Double
BARCELONA v ATLETICO MADRID
(Tonight, 11.55pm, SingTel mio TV Ch 115 & StarHub TV Ch 209)
Like the English Premier League, the La Liga title will be settled on the final day.
But that's all the two competitions have in common.
This isn't a mere title decider. This is the Spanish Inquisition; 90 minutes of insufferable torture at the Nou Camp.
Match-day tickets must come with health warnings. The dugouts should be equipped with defibrillators.
Barcelona and Atletico Madrid meet on the final day in the first winner-takes-all clash in 53 years.
Only grandparents recall the last one. Their grandchildren will remember this one.
It's first against second and the conclusion of a quite calamitous race that both sides have seemingly conspired not to win; dropping the baton at every opportunity.
At times, La Liga has resembled a three-donkey race, with Real Madrid, Atletico and Barcelona casually strolling along a beach, stopping only to leave a pile of something foul-smelling on the beach.
In a quite extraordinary statistic, the top three failed to win in their last seven games between them.
Real Madrid and Atletico's Champions League distractions and Barcelona's lengthy injury list appeared to wither them. Form succumbed to fatigue. They staggered rather than swaggered to the finish line.
Barca and Atletico are impersonating Liverpool, snatching draws from the jaws of victory. They are grinding rather than grooving.
Like Cinderella, Diego Simeone's men unexpectedly went to the ball and somehow outstayed their welcome way past midnight. The trouble is they are fast turning into pumpkins.
Nerves are jangling and understandably so. Atletico can't quite believe their waltzing around the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona at a party that has been a private affair between the top two since Valencia gatecrashed in 2004.
They operate on a budget around one fifth of the size of the perennial title challengers.
For months, Simeone has studied the cautious sound-bites of Brendan Rodgers, essentially saying that his indefatigable men are overachieving and could falter at any moment.
But they didn't. Unlike Liverpool, destiny remains in their hands. Avoid defeat tonight and the title is theirs for the first time since 1996.
Recent history supports their unlikely claim for the crown. The top two have clashed five times this season. Barcelona are yet to taste victory. Lionel Messi is yet to beat Atletico's outstanding goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.
In a season-long war of attrition, it feels like death by paper cut with Atletico eking out four draws and a win as they slowly wounded the champions. Their Champions League triumph cut the deepest.
But the greatest pain has been inflicted on Gerardo Martino's team-sheet.
Unlike Barcelona's makeshift back four, Atletico's defence picks itself.
Miranda and Diego Godin offer a central stability that has eluded Barcelona since Carles Puyol's knee betrayed him. The irreplaceable leader called it quits yesterday.
And Manchester United and Chelsea are currently battling to win over fullback Filipe Luis. His opposing wingers seldom do.
Barcelona's most cynical hope was dashed last night when Diego Costa was declared fit to face a defence where Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba are not fully fit and Dani Alves' head has been turned by an avalanche of euros possibly heading his way from PSG.
A draw will suffice for Atletico, but Simeone is loath to park buses. With Costa available, he doesn't have to.
Besides which, Barcelona are a mess. Martino's mercurial season hasn't been helped by Luis Enrique lurking in the shadows; the Celta Vigo coach tipped to steady the ship that threatens to run aground.
Sergio Busquets will again be tasked to protect a defence that can't really defend and Alexis Sanchez is likely to lead an attack that has struggled to attack.
These muddled men have found banana skins that hitherto never existed to somehow flounder against Elche, Getafe and Granada.
Another awaits them at the Nou Camp.
Barcelona are a single mis-step from disaster. Atletico can take a huge stride towards a double.
Finally, there will be a definitive outcome. Triumph and despair are guaranteed at the final whistle.
In a La Liga season littered with second chances, this is the last one.
- Real Madrid v Espanyol
- Valencia v Celta Vigo
- Real Sociedad v Villarreal
- Osasuna v Real Betis
- Rayo Vallecano v Getafe
- Real Valladolid v Granada
- Almeria v Athletic Bilbao
- Sevilla v Elche