The stage is set. As our search for the rightful champion of La Liga enters its final act, the protagonists make their way to center stage, swaying, stumbling, and trying to keep their feet about them to avoid face-planting into the orchestra pit like the third title aspirant, Real Madrid. The curtains will soon raise on the final act of what should go down as the greatest season in Spanish club soccer's history, pitting Atlético Madrid against Barcelona in a season-ending fixture to decide the title. That's how it'd better end, anyway.
You really couldn't write this stuff. The Barça-Atlético match has long loomed large in the minds of Spanish soccer fans who realized the potential of a season-ending clash between two teams that have basically played musical chairs atop the table this season. But even as recently as last weekend, all three teams chasing the championship justifiably believed they had lost everything.
It started when Barcelona welcomed Getafe to the Camp Nou on Saturday. There, Barça's chronic inability to concentrate for a full 90 minutes saw them concede a late equalizer to drop an unforgivable yet completely unsurprising two points. With that draw, what remained of their twig-thin title shot was whittled down to a toothpick's size. Not only would Barcelona need to slay an Atlético Madrid team they have been unable to beat in six tries this season, they would still need even more help from both Madrid teams.
Sunday was Atlético's turn to smack their head in frustration at what should've been. Coming into the match a mere two wins from clinching the league and obviating the final week's game with Barça, the fumes and passion Atlético had been running on the past few weeks in their La Liga and Champions League runs were finally unable to keep their constantly revving engine from stalling out. Levante 2, Atlético 0. To make matters worse, it appeared they had gifted their archrivals Real Madrid the title, given that they would only need to win out against fairly mediocre competition to back their way into a championship.
But unlike in god-forsaken England, the Spanish deities would not let their championship be so cleanly decided. Against a Valencia side with nothing to play for except maybe a pay hike when the players are inevitably sold, and in a match Real knew would solidify themselves as title favorites, los blancos picked a most inopportune moment to shit the bed. Valencia struck first, on the cusp of halftime. After the break, Real got their equalizer, and for a few minutes it looked like they would storm back to firmly grasp the league cup with at least one hand.
Well, for six minutes, to be exact. That was the time it took former Real Madrid youth player Dani Parejo to slam home a second goal for Valencia. Madrid were again wobbling on the precipice until a typically outlandish Ronaldo backheel/taekwondo kick in stoppage time saved a draw. Real would need to win its next two games and hope Barcelona beat Atléti in the end, but they still had a chance.
That was the situation Real Madrid found themselves in heading into yesterday's game at Real Valladolid. But this time, Ronaldo—subbed off in the 9th minute due to injury—couldn't save them. Valladolid 1, Real Madrid 1.
All of that is the how and why our stage is set at Camp Nou, Barcelona, May 18th, 11:00am EST. As the season as a whole and the past week especially have shown, there is still much work to be done if we are to send off this remarkable La Liga season with the finale it deserves. The fatigue and concentration problems that cost Atlético and Barça points last weekend have not gone away.
Indeed, an Atléti team coached by a lesser manager than Diego Simeone would be especially wracked with regret. Had they beaten Levante, a single point from either of the rojiblancos' upcoming two matches would've crowned them champions. Sealing the title early would've given them an opportunity to rest up for an even more pressurized Champions League final against cross-town foes Real Madrid.
Simeone isn't one to shy away from a fight. (His response to the Levante loss: "On this occasion we have been beaten and now we have in front of us three weeks full of emotion, pure football. The league now is a lot more exciting.") Still, Atlético will go into the biggest couple weeks in club history with a gassed team starting to feel the effects of their infrequent rotation policy.
Even so, it's a heady time to be a fan of Spanish soccer. A league long derided for its two-club hegemony has produced Europe's most compelling title race, and that hopefully portends a better future, one in which the league title actually means something more to fans of Barcelona and Real than just keeping the cup out of their rival's trophy case. And with the season being capped by an all-Spanish Champions League final, you can forgive fans for strutting their stuff a little. (I wonder if Spanish fans will take a note from the SEC and rain down chants of La! Li! Ga!, La! Li! Ga! upon the Estádio da Luz.)
This league competitiveness is what will make whoever ends up champion feel an uncommon elation with their campaign, and is the same reason why every Barcelona and Real Madrid fan should hope Atlético can keep the band together. When you see the fervor with which English teams chase the EPL title, and the emotional cratering when the title is lost, you see why that is the piece of silverware clubs and fans fantasize about every August. The Premier League is full of big games, constantly revolving title favorites, and pratfalls the likes of which we've seen in La Liga this year. We should all pray that the Soccer Gods see fit to continue this particular play: you could tweak the cast and add a few lines to the script, but the overall dramatic structure is just right.