Spain’s soccer triathlon nears its climax

Certain competitions — a pennant race, for example — are sometimes described as a marathon, not a sprint. The cliche certainly applies to European soccer league competitions, which last from mid-August to mid-May.

But the most competitive leagues can more aptly be described, for the top teams at least, as a triathlon. The likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Chelsea may find themselves competing simultaneously in their respective league, in at least one domestic Cup, and in the European Champions League.

By May, no matter how deep its squad, no team that has gone through this meat-grinder is likely to be running on more than half empty.

So it has been this year in La Liga, Spain’s top division.

Last week, three teams were still chasing the title: Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, and Real Madrid. Atletico was in first place, three points (i.e., one win) ahead of Barcelona. Real Madrid was third, one point (i.e., one draw) behind Barca.

(The two Madrid sides have also advanced to the Champions League final. Barcelona was eliminated in the semi-final by Atletico. And Real Madrid and Barcelona played last month in the Copa del Rey final, which Madrid won 2-1).

With Atletico and Barcelona playing on the final day of the season, Barca needed to at least match Atletico’s result to keep the finale relevant. Real Madrid needed to win its final two matches and hope for some help.

All three giants faced what on paper looked like fairly comfortable matches. Atletico Madrid was home against lowly Malaga. Barcelona was away from home but playing lowly Elche. Real Madrid was away against mid-table Celta de Vigo.

Earlier in the season, the big three all would have been expected to win their match by two goals or more. Indeed, Barcelona had routed Elche 4-0 in January and Real Madrid had conquered Celta de Vigo 3-0 the same month.

Last Sunday was an entirely different story. Atletico had to come from behind against Malaga for a 1-1 draw. Barcelona, scorers of 99 goals in 36 league matches, couldn’t net one in a draw against Elche (a good defensive team, to be fair). Real Madrid, scorers of 101 goals, lost to Celta 2-0.

(Note the contrast with Manchester City in the English Premier League, which found a second wind and played brilliantly in its last four matches to claim the EPL crown. The difference? They were knocked out of the Champions League by Barcelona in March).

Last Sunday’s results eliminated Real Madrid. In a few hours, Atletico Madrid and Barcelona will play for the title. If Barca wins, it will claim the crown. Otherwise, it goes to Atletico, for the first time since 1996.

Atletico would then have the opportunity to win its first ever European Championship when it takes on Real Madrid next Saturday in Lisbon. This will be the first time two clubs from the same city have played for Europe’s top team prize.

The table is set for two dream matches. But will any of these three teams find the strength to perform at the level that brought them to this point?

UPDATE: Atletico Madrid are champions of Spain, having ground out a 1-1 draw. The first half looked like the end of a Triathlon, as Atletico’s best player, Diego Costa, limped off after 15 minutes with a recurrence of a hamstring injury. Neither team got out of first gear, but Barca took a 1-0 lead on a wonder strike from Alexis Sanchez.

Atletico came roaring out in the second half and got the goal they needed in less than five minutes. After that, the best defense in Europe held off Barca’s vaunted attack with less difficulty than I expected.

This match felt like the end of an era at Barcelona. That era saw the club win four La Liga titles in six seasons, along with two European Championships.

Next season, I expect the Catalan giants to have a new coach and an influx of new stars to replace most of their aging ones.

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