Barcelona's slide has opened Spain's title race for Atletico, Real Madrid
And so it comes to this: three teams, three and a half weeks and a five-match dash for the finish line. Barcelona, Atletico, Madrid. "The team that wins the league will be the best over 38 games, not five," Barcelona manager Luis Enrique insisted on Tuesday, but that's not really true anymore. Whatever happened then happened; what matters is what happens next, and it all starts in A Coruña on Wednesday night.
They line up alongside each other, no tactics, no doubts: flat out to the finish, no room for error, a single slip and it's over; five games to play, five games to win.
The obstacles they face are uneven and the start is staggered, sure, but barely: The gaps between them now are so small that they're only really there as tiebreakers. Barcelona have 76 points, Atlético 76 and Madrid 75. When it comes to head-to-head, Atletico beat Madrid, and Barcelona beat them both. Asked whether his team would have to win every match to take the title and whether they could do exactly that, Enrique answered, "yes and yes."
None of them ever truly expected to be in this position. At the end of Week 29, just four matchdays ago, Barcelona had a 12-point lead over Real Madrid and an eight-point lead over Atletico. Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane had already admitted it was over after defeat in the Madrid derby. When Gerard Pique headed the opening goal in the clasico in Week 31, it put Barcelona 13 points ahead of Madrid and nine above Atletico. But Madrid came back. They both did. Barcelona allowed them to, picking up just one of the last 12 points on offer. So now, here they are.
How it happened has occupied everyone's thoughts: How did Barcelona invite their rivals to run? Maybe one of the reasons it's not over is precisely because they thought it was over; maybe they didn't win because, deep down, they knew they didn't have to. Maybe they should ignore advice from The Jackson Five and blame it on the good times? Or maybe it's the inability to step up again afterward. If you conserve energy, do you lose the ability to draw upon it?
Maybe it's simpler, maybe it's fatigue; just don't tell Enrique that. "What's your surname?" he asked of the last journalist to ask. "Malo [Bad]," came the reply. "Correct, next question," he said.
Maybe it's psychological: Valencia manager Pako Ayestaran talked of Barcelona's "anxiety" on Sunday. Maybe it's the short squad and the lack of variety: Against Valencia, Luis Enrique didn't even send anyone out to warm up. There was no point. Maybe it's the calendar: The timing hasn't been on Barcelona's side, and these small details perhaps make a big difference. Maybe it's trans-Atlantic travel before the clasico. Maybe it's tactical: Atletico manager Diego Simeone admitted earlier in the season that "we tried to annoy [Sergio] Busquets" -- now they're all doing it. Maybe it's bad luck, bad finishing, bad football.
"It's incredible that the stars have aligned against us like this," Pique said. And if anyone in football believes in the stars, it is Simeone, the manager who admits he checks the zodiac before signing a player. His team have a chance now. So do Zidane's.
Maybe it's all of that or none of it. Maybe. But how they got here doesn't matter much now; what matters is how they're going to get there, and what condition they're in to run. Given how they got here, Barcelona's obligation is everyone else's opportunity, but this new situation, and this sprint that is about to begin, may have turned that back into an opportunity again.
Enrique says that he is convinced that they will win the league "or else I wouldn't be sitting here," he said at the pre-match news conference. It's a familiar phrase; it's also false, of course, and it is impossible for there not to be doubts.
Neymar's form has dropped. Luis Suarez is missing chances. Lionel Messi just scored his 500th career goal, but getting there took longer than anyone imagined. They have racked up no wins in four league games and just one win in six in all competitions -- an ultimately worthless one, at that. Meanwhile, Real Madrid have won seven in a row in La Liga, Atletico seven of the last eight. Madrid look fit and are gathering momentum, resurrected.
Atletico are not just winning, either; they are dominating. They're scoring goals and lots of them. Fernando Torres has not been in scoring form this good since he was Liverpool's No. 9. Enrique made no changes at the weekend; against Eibar, Madrid made eight and still hammered them while against Getafe, their "subs" James and Isco both scored. No one has gotten as many goals off the bench as Atlético.
It's in Barcelona's hands, but that hasn't been a great place to be of late. And if it is said that not playing in Europe could help them, thereby giving them seven days to prepare for each game, that's not actually true.
The sprint starts in midweek, three days on from their latest defeat; for Barcelona, it would be the second of three games in six days. There will be only two league games that they can prepare with a week's work when Atletico and Madrid cannot: away at Betis and at home to Espanyol. And besides, Madrid are in a five-match run of games in the city, not needing to travel.
Barcelona open Week 34 at Deportivo. Then they face Sporting (H), Betis (A), Espanyol (H) and Granada (H). Atletico go to Athletic and then play Malaga (H), (Bayern), Rayo (H), (Bayern), Levante (A) and Celta. Madrid are up against Villarreal at the Bernabeu, then they go to Rayo (A) before playing Manchester City, Real Sociedad (A), (City), Valencia (H) and Deportivo (A).
Not so long ago, Barcelona's official Twitter account said that it appeared that they had the "easiest" run in. Quite apart from being a rather daft thing to say, or a red rag to temptation, it's not so easy to judge. Not least because of injuries, morale and shifting objectives. A team that's safe is not the same as one that's fighting for survival; a team with European ambitions is not the same as one without them. And that changes as weeks pass.
There may be something in that Camp Nou hope, though: Barcelona's five opponents are 18th, 17th, 15th, 14th and 13th in the table, respectively. Yet one of them is a local rival, while Sporting and Granada are fighting for their lives. Real Madrid face fourth, 10th, 12th, 13th and 16th. Atletico go to fifth tomorrow and also face sixth, eighth, 16th and 19th. Celta and Athletic are competing for fourth and Levante are battling relegation but may not be by then. Atletico do, though, have more home games than the other two.
According to Sport, if the remaining fixtures went the way they did in the first half of the season (where all the home games were away and the away games home), Atletico would finish at the top. If they went the way they did last season, Barcelona would win the league. And if they went the way they have historically, Barcelona would win the league, too. But only just.
Only just. Whatever happens, it is likely to be only just. "We will have to fight until the last minute," Zidane said. And that might not even be enough: Zidane added that he can see both Atletico and Barcelona winning all five games. Simeone, by contrast, said that it is "in our hands ... we depend on ourselves," suggesting perhaps that he thinks Barcelona will slip up and that his players will be given the chance to climb above them.
And so the race starts with what may be the most interesting Jornada of them all, the one round of games when all three teams have potentially difficult games, the one where change appears the most likely and which may, a priori, end with someone else on top for the first time in 11 weeks. Barcelona (without Pique) at Depor, Atlético at Athletic and Madrid against Villarreal. But if this season has taught anybody anything it is that you never know; nothing is done until it's done, even when it appears done. Especially when it appears done.
"Who is the favourite?" Zidane was asked. "No one," he said. All those weeks, all those games and it's come to this. All those certainties have gone to leave just one certainty. No one expected it, but that's how it is. For all the combinations, permutations, figures and fears, the ambiguity has been stripped away to leave something seemingly simple. Beautifully, dramatically simple: a start line, a finish line and three teams with no second chances, just a single, shared objective: win every game or it's over. And if they all do? Well, then, for two of them it will be over anyway.
"It's extremely difficult, but I am such a d--- that I like adversity. I'm from Gijon; I love this dance," Enrique said. "And if we win every game, we're going to throw some party ..."
And if not? "If not, we'll congratulate the champion."
Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.