It’s not normal for the team four points clear at the top with 10 games to go not be favourites to win LaLiga, but many people watching Spain’s top three in action at the weekend came to exactly that conclusion.
The league is Atletico Madrid’s to lose – and the bookmakers still agree with that – but they do look like losing it because Barcelona are suddenly playing the best football anyone has played all season in Spain and Diego Simeone’s side are still out in front but fading fast.
After watching his side tear Real Sociedad to shreds in the Reale Arena on Sunday night Ronald Koeman was understandably upbeat. Just a couple of hours earlier Atletico had needed a late penalty save to take all three points from lowly Alaves – the difference in current form could not be more stark.
Barcelona are all smiles as they have all the momentum with them in the LaLiga title race
Atletico Madrid remain top of LaLiga but not all is well with them as they remain out of form
With the 6-1 drubbing of a fifth-placed side, Barcelona reached 100 goals in all competitions. In LaLiga they have scored 67, that’s at least 16 more than anyone else.
The goals have been shared between 18 players – no other team in Europe’s top five leagues can boast so many different scorers – and Lionel Messi has 23 for the season in the domestic competition.
The man closest to Messi in the scoring charts in Spain is Luis Suarez and he and Jan Oblak hold the key to Atletico holding off the challengers.
Suarez has 19 goals for the season and his header from Kieran Trippier’s cross got them the points on Sunday but it was so nearly a different story. After Stefan Savic elbowed Luis Rioja, Oblak had to save the penalty to see Atletico over the line.
Barca coach Koeman did sound a note of caution in his post-match press conference. ‘Let’s just hope everyone comes back fit,’ he said of an ill-timed international window that will now see him cross his fingers for Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets and Pedri, who all join up with Spain.
He also has to think of Oscar Mingueza and Riqui Puig who join up with the Spain Under 21s; Clement Lenglet, Antoine Griemann and Ousmane Dembele, who join France, Marc-Andre ter Stegen, who has gone with Germany, Frenkie de Jong with Holland, Miralem Pjanic to Bosnia, Martin Braithwaite to Denmark, and Francisco Trincao, who will play with Portugal’s Under 21s.
Atletico manager Diego Simeone knows his side are fading fast and need to arrest their slide
Barca boss Ronald Koeman (right) has reason for optimism with his side purring at present
LALIGA TITLE AND TOP FOUR ODDS
To win LaLiga odds from Betfair
Atletico Madrid: 8/11
Real Madrid: 5/1 Sevilla: 500/1
Top four-finish odds from Betfair
Villarreal: 33/1 Betis: 40/1
Koeman is easily the most affected by the international break. The consolation is that there are no South or North American games so Messi, Ronald Araujo and Sergino Dest all stay – but it will still be 10 days without most of the squad and with the concern that they will not return in the same shape they left.
Leaders Atletico will lose Yannick Carrasco and Marcos Llorente as well as Joao Felix, Koke, Oblak and Trippier but the Uruguayan contingent headed by Suarez are saved any longer journeys, Angel Correa can rest up, and so can Renan Lodi, Felipe and Saul.
The way the teams emerge from this round of World Cup qualifiers will have a huge impact on the run-in. This feels like the last fence at Aintree on Grand National day.
Atletico – the least in-shape to deal with a tough run-in – have the most difficult last 10 games. Six are away and picking up points on the road at Betis, Sevilla, Athletic Bilbao and Barcelona will be difficult.
Barcelona have five at home and five away with trips to Real Madrid and Villarreal their most testing fixtures. Real Madrid have the best home/away ratio with just four games on the road. But they do look to have the most difficult final four matches with home games away at Sevilla and Villarreal sandwiching trips to Granada and Athletic Bilbao.
Atletico supporters can take some confidence from the fact that both Madrid and Barcelona are still in other competitions, with Zinedine Zidane’s team in particular chasing other dreams. If Madrid stay in Europe and Barcelona allow their April 17 Cup final to take their concentration, then the pendulum could swing Atletico’s way once more.
Barca routed Real Sociedad 6-1 in LaLiga on Sunday to remain four points off top spot
Real Madrid are also in the title hunt as they sit third and just six points off local rivals Atletico
But what cannot be argued right now is that Barcelona have hit form at the right time and the leaders have not.
Gerard Pique and Sergio Roberto are also expected to get back to fitness for the run-in but they don’t need to rush because those playing in their places are performing superbly.
How the LaLiga table looks right now
Real Madrid are already reaping the rewards of Fede Valverde, Rodrygo and Sergio Ramos’ return. For Atletico it’s more a case of needing players such as Koke and Savic to find their earlier season form.
Barcelona rolled back the clock on Sunday night with a performance that was hailed as having been from their glorious recent past. Roll the clock forward to May 23 and no one would be surprised if it’s them instead of the current leaders who are left celebrating.