After staging a stunning revival to rein in leader Atletico Madrid, Barcelona can finally go top of La Liga when it hosts Diego Simeone’s side on a mouthwatering weekend as the four teams in the title race come face to face.
Atletico leads the standings with 76 points after 34 games heading into Saturday’s crunch game away to Barca, which is third on 74.
An Atletico slip up will only play into the hands of champion Real Madrid, which is second on 74 with a superior head-to-head record over both of its rivals. On Sunday, Real hosts Sevilla, which is fourth on 70 and still alive in the race.
Barcelona trailed Atletico by 13 points in January, leading coach Ronald Koeman to practically rule out the team’s title chances and pin his hopes on winning the Copa del Rey instead.
The Catalans pulled themselves back into contention with a resurgent run of 16 wins from 19 games in 2021, while Atletico began to run out of steam in February, also letting Real and then Sevilla back in to the picture.
Barca missed a glorious chance to go top last week when it threw away a 1-0 lead to lose 2-1 at home to Granada but will finally go above Atletico with victory over Simeone’s side, which has not won at the Camp Nou since 2006.
“It was unthinkable in January that Barcelona could go toe-to-toe with Atletico with the chance to go top,” said former Barca player Javier Mascherano at a La Liga event.
The title looked like a foregone conclusion when Atletico won 16 of its first 19 games but its results began to decline after a number of players caught COVID-19.
Coach Simeone has said the team with the best mental strength will end up lifting the title and that certainly does not look like his side, which has won only three of its last six games, losing twice.
Atletico also appears to have suffered a crisis of confidence, clinging to leads against struggling sides such as Elche and Alaves and only winning 1-0 thanks to its opponents missing late penalties.
If emotional will is to prove decisive then Real Madrid could be the best equipped, having overcome the worst injury crisis in the league to still stand a chance.
Few teams are as obstinate as Zinedine Zidane’s side although its mental resolve will be tested again after it was comprehensively beaten by Chelsea to exit the Champions League on Wednesday.
“Devastated but never finished. Real Madrid’s history has been built on victories but we have always risen again after defeats,” captain Sergio Ramos said on Twitter. “The league is still up for grabs and we’re going all out for it,” he added.