The pandemic soccer season hasn’t thrown up a lot of drama across Europe. Either alongside or because of the oppressive schedule, which has led to exhausted players and pretty wretched games at various times, we’ve mostly gotten title processions instead of races. Bayern Munich sauntered to a ninth-straight Bundesliga title, because they always were. Manchester City have done just about the same in England after some early wobbles. While Italy finally broke free from Juventus’s decade-long chokehold, Inter finished second last year and were a lot of people’s favorites anyway. They clinched with five games to go.
Spain has been different. At various times, three teams looked likely to take the title, and even a fourth briefly popped up to try and steal the wedding cake without anyone noticing. The only problem is, none of the four seems to actually want to win La Liga.
This past weekend offered up the rare occasion where the top four teams were all playing each other in Spain, with first-place Atlético Madrid visiting third-place Barcelona and second-place Real Madrid hosting fourth-place Sevilla. The weekend started with all four teams separated by just six points. And that’s how it ended, too.
The bonanza of stasis started on Saturday with Atlético-Barca, and 0-0 was just about the only way it could end. Atlético had some big chances early but couldn’t convert, which has kind of been the story for them for months now. They’ve only scored more than one goal in two of their last 10 matches. After that, they reverted to the tried and true Diego Simeone style of building a trench in front of their 18-yard-box and suffocating the life out of everything.
Barcelona, meanwhile, have been experts of seeing chances to rise to the top of the league, then tripping over their shoelaces and falling into the outhouse. Two weeks ago they had an opportunity to go top and lost to Granada at home. They could have put a death grip on things on their visit to Real Madrid, and lost there. Here was another, and only Lionel Messi managed more than one shot on target, aside from defender Gerard Piqué. And defenders shouldn’t be leading your team in shots on target.
Which left the door open for either Madrid or upstart Sevilla on Sunday, and at least they provided some controversy and theater. Sevilla took the lead in the first half only to see Madrid equalize in the 67th minute, and that’s where things got fun.
Madrid appeared to have a prince chance to take the lead when Karim Benzema authored a one-man counterattack after a Sevilla corner by carrying the ball some 70 yards on a breakaway, which ended when he was clearly fouled by Sevilla keeper Yassine Bounou for a penalty and probably a red card. Except VAR had yet to be heard from during the weekend, and this was the perfect time. Turned out, Éder Militão was guilty of a handball from the original corner. At least that’s what VAR said, even though Militão was facing the wrong way at the time. But his arm was up at shoulder-height, which is automatic these days. The whole exchange led to a first in soccer I’m sure, an announcer saying the following, “We know it’s a penalty. We just don’t know for who.” Ivan Rakitić converted, and suddenly it looked like Sevilla might be in with a real shout not just to win the match but rock the whole structure of La Liga.
Madrid kept their hopes alive, and killed Sevilla’s, with a last-gasp equalizer thanks to Toni Kroos blasting a 25-yard drive off of a standstill Eden Hazard to deflect past Bounou, standing still being the only thing Hazard can do these days without getting hurt or gaining weight.
The collection of results probably ends Sevilla’s underdog tale, along with their loss at home to Bilbao last week. Had they collected two wins in those they’d be sitting right on Atlético’s shoulder. Atlético have a two-point lead with three games to go, but seeing as how they lose the tiebreaker to Real, they likely need to win all three games left. Which looks straightforward enough considering their last three games Real Sociedad and Osasuna who have nothing to play for and Valladolid who are battling relegation. But Atlético haven’t managed three wins in a row since January.
Madrid have just about an easy-looking finish, but have looked pretty exhausted for a few weeks now given how many players they count on are over 30. They’ve only won two of their last eight games, so ripping off three in a row looks beyond them at the moment.
Barcelona might have the easiest remaining three games with two of them against teams in the relegation zone, and they still have Messi who might decide to just do it himself. Of the three they’re still in the best form, having won four of their past six. But they don’t have the tiebreaker with Atlético, having lost to them early in the season, so would need Atlético to lose at least one of their last three. But seeing as how the Rojiblancos have had trouble hitting the broadside of a barn of late, that’s not a huge ask.
Someone is going to win, it’ll just most likely be one of the three who falls down last.