At the start of the year, Atletico Madrid held what lookied like an insurmountable lead at the top of the La Liga tree but a loss this weekend to Barcelona could send them spiralling as their rivals look to pounce.
A horrible run of form in 2021 coupled with a number of key injuries have left Simeone’s side clinging on to their slender title lead.
For most of the season, Atletico sat top, at one point enjoying a whopping 11-point lead over rivals Real and Barca. They looked to be on course for the simplest of title wins. However, since the turn of the year, their astonishing lead has collapsed, leaving them looking over their shoulders at the chasing pack.
Atletico’s problems lie in a number of areas. During the first stage of the season, Simeone’s side almost picked itself. But as the season has progressed, their squad depth has been tested to its limits, so much so that dynamic box-to-box midfielder Marcos Llorente has played up-front, and at right wing-back.
Alongside the injuries, their machine like form, which saw them win 15 of their opening 16 games has dropped off too. Since February, Atletico have won six, drawn four and lost three. Barcelona have won nine, drawn once and lost twice. Real Madrid, who sit in second, have won nine and drawn four times.
Their record in the second half of the season is comfortably the worst of the Spanish title contenders. Conversely however, Barcelona have somehow managed to rediscover themselves.
Back in December, a title challenge was the last thing on Barca and manager Ronald Koeman’s mind. They were sitting in sixth place and were a mess both on and off the pitch. But a thanks to switching in systems, putting faith in youngsters and Lionel Messi, they find themselves with a chance to go top of the table with three games to go.
In the last few months, Barca have shifted away from their usual 4-3-3 formation, instead adopting a hybrid 3-4-3 system. And the shift has paid-off for Koeman side, who have picked up a whopping 45 points from a possible 56.
The change in formation has given their attacking stars a new lease of life. Ousmane Dembele, although an inconsistent talent, has thrived in a more direct, more central role. Antoine Griezmann, who has failed to find a stable footing at Barcelona since joining from Atletico in 2019, has scored six goals in his last eight games.
It has also given Messi a platform to perform. Since the start of the year, when Koeman made the switch, Messi has scored 21 goals in 17 games.
Additionally, the switch in system has also allowed the Catalans to blood a number of youngsters this season. Oscar Mingueza, Sergino Dest, Ronald Araujo, Illaix Moriba, Francisco Trincao, Riqui Puig and Pedri have played a significant number of minutes this season.
Had a serious string of injuries not de-railed his season, starlet Ansu Fati would almost certainly have played a key role in Barcelona’s plans too.
The clash promises to be an exciting one. And while Atletico still sit top of the table and in control of their own destiny, they are still looking over their shoulder as the La Liga title race comes to a head.