As we have discussed before, the title races in Europe are wrapping up, resulting in what is arguably the most exciting part of the season. Some leagues have already crowned a champion, but others will go down to the final matchday. La Liga, the top-flight league in Spain, is one of them. After one of the best seasons in La Liga history, the fight to win the title has been visceral due to some clubs being in transition and some squads aging while other teams are hitting perfect form at the ideal time.
A few weeks ago, it was a four-way race between Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Sevilla, all of whom had a realistic chance of beating out the others and finishing first. After a loss to Athletic Bilbao and a tie with Real Madrid, Sevilla dropped out of the title race; a draw with Levante seriously dented Barcelona’s aspirations — but not entirely, meaning it was still very much a tight contest heading into last Sunday, which was the penultimate matchday of the 2020/21 La Liga season. At the bottom of the table, it is almost the same story — as no one was officially relegated — but there were essentially three teams: Elche, Valladolid and Eibar, all desperately scraping to remain in the top division. Luckily for us fans, what occurred was probably the greatest matchday of the season and one of the finest days in Spanish football history, with multiple high-stakes games all being played at the same time.
The story starts at the summit of the table with Atletico Madrid, who have been battling to stay in that position and win their first league title since 2014. Their opponents Sunday were 11th-place Osasuna, a team that is not fighting for European qualification but is also far from relegation.
This should have been an easy victory for Atletico, and the opening half certainly looked that way. The stereotypically defensive Atletico were playing beautiful attacking and expansive football, a change in style that manager Diego Simeone has tried this season to mixed results. In the first half, everything seemed rosy on the eastern front as Los Colchoneros dominated. Star-striker, Luis Suarez, had four shots he really should have scored: one which was a tame shot at goal, one which was, admittedly, saved well by the keeper, one that skipped wide and another that smacked off of the post. Angel Correa and Saul Niguez both had excellent chances as well, but they too could not convert. By contrast, though, Osasuna had virtually no decent chances at all.
In the second half, Atletico Madrid thought they opened the score after Stefan Savic turned the ball into the net off a freekick, but it was disallowed when VAR showed Savic was offside. Then, with the clock reading 74 minutes, a formidable counter-attack and suspect-marking from Renan Lodi saw Osasuna’s forward, Ante Budimir, steer in a bullet header which Jan Oblak nearly kept out; Osasuna were up 1-0.
With second-place Real Madrid winning their match, an aura of defeat permeated throughout the Atletico ranks as it seemed the elusive La Liga title was slipping away. Diego Simeone and Suarez had other thoughts, though, and their motivation injected a much-needed mental revival. Merely seven minutes later, Joao Felix played a beautiful through-ball to the charging full-back, Lodi, who then smashed the ball into the top corner, redeeming himself for his earlier mistake and tying the match 1-1. Afterward, swift build-up play between Suarez and Kieran Trippier saw Yannick Carrasco released into Osasuna’s box. With quick feet, Carrasco pulled the ball back and across the 18-yard box. Bursting into the area, Suarez slotted the ball into the far corner with his first touch, putting Atletico up 2-1 with barely three minutes left in the game and sending Atletico fans across the city into a crazed frenzy. Eventually, the league leaders were able to hold on to their lead, solidifying their position in a dramatic fashion. Now, all they have to do is beat 19th-place Real Valladolid next Saturday, and they will be crowned champions of Spain.
Second-place Real Madrid, who are also the reigning champions, went into their match against Athletic Bilbao, knowing they needed to win to have their fate in their own hands. Athletic Bilbao sits in ninth-place in the league and have nothing to play for, but they are no pushovers as they have a very talented squad and even beat Real Madrid earlier this season.
Throughout the match, Bilbao was resolute, disrupting Real’s play and restricting only a few chances at goal. As all of Real Madrid’s shots from distance were off target or saved by Unai Simon, the Real Madrid players themselves were starting to feel uneasy. This sentiment was multiplied when Casemiro’s header off a corner hit the crossbar. After another corner deep into the second half, the ball pinged around in Athletic Bilbao’s box until Casemiro sent a low cross past the face of goal. Karim Benzema was the intended target, but the ball was behind him. Fortunately for Real Madrid, Nacho Fernandez was standing right behind Benzema, and the ball deflected off his shin and into the net. While Fernandez did not plan to score in that manner — he wasn’t even expecting the ball to find him — he put his team up 1-0, a lead that they held on to despite a close header from Bilbao’s Mikel Vesga which bounced wide.
With this win, Real Madrid is only two points behind their cross-town rivals. Should Real win their next match and Atletico lose or draw theirs, Real Madrid would then be crowned the King of Spain yet again. However, this is no easy task as their opponent in the final match is Villarreal, who are very strong and will even play in the Europa League Final in a few weeks.
On to the third and final title contender, Barcelona welcomed Celta Vigo to the famous Camp Nou stadium. Like their opponents, Barcelona knew they needed to win this match if they wanted to keep their hopes alive to win La Liga again after being unable to defend their 2019 title last year. Their task was far from easy, though, as Celta Vigo has been in red-hot form, playing some great football and winning their last four games, turning around a season that started very poorly. In fact, despite hovering above the relegation zone earlier in the season, Celta Vigo needed a win against Barcelona themselves that would put them in contention for the last European Qualification spot.
However, the match started with Barcelona in total control. Barcelona’s pressure choked Celta as the Blaugrana peppered their opponent’s net with shots. Barcelona could have taken the lead with a series of good chances, but they eventually broke the deadlock after Sergio Busquets sent a world-class through-ball over-the-top to Lionel Messi, who put Barcelona 1-0 up with a diving header. Barcelona was playing great, and everything was going in their favor leaving the players comfortable — perhaps too comfortable. With their first attack of the game, Celta Vigo initiated a counterattack down the left-flank just as the first half came to a close. Iago Aspas delivered a far cross which found Santi Mina right outside the top of Barcelona’s box. In a strange run-of-play, Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba failed to close down Mina, and with all this space, Mina took a shot. Possibly having his vision blocked, Marc-Andre ter Stegen did not react as the ball flew past him in goal, and just like that, the match was set at 1-1 as Barcelona found themselves let down by their defense yet again.
In the second half, Barcelona seemed to lack all motivation and all that ferocity they had in the previous 45 minutes, and Celta Vigo gained a sizeable foothold in the match. Saying that, Barcelona still had some very clear chances to win the match even as Clement Lenglet was sent off for a foolish foul. Ronald Araujo was unable to head down the ball into an open net; but more frustratingly, Barcelona’s backup striker, Martin Braithwaite failed to convert an easy tap-in about a yard away from goal, following a perfect cross from Jordi Alba.
In the next sequence of play, Celta Vigo found themselves in some space on Barcelona’s wing. After Barcelona’s defenders seemed unconcerned with defending, again, Augusto Solari was able to restfully send in a deep cross. His delivery was slightly too deep, though, and it sailed past ter Stegen and rebounded off the post. To pile on the misery, the ball fell right to Mina, who was able to poke it into the net, putting Celta up 2-1. In a moment of mass situational irony, given that all these matches occurred simultaneously, just as Braithwaite fluffed his lines and Mina finished off the game, Luis Suarez scored the decisive winner for Atletico Madrid. The same Luis Suarez was disrespectfully discarded by Barcelona last season after being deemed too old and too expensive. With this loss, Barcelona is left licking their wounds as they are mathematically out of the title race.
Going down the table, fifth-place Real Sociedad and sixth-place Real Betis confirmed their place in the Europa League next season with two wins respectively. Seventh-place Villarreal secured their spot in the Europa League qualifiers after a surprising 4-0 rout over fourth-place Sevilla, who themselves, have long since qualified for the Champions League already despite their heavy loss this past Sunday.
In the relegation battle, things were just as cutthroat as the opposite end of the table. 15th-place Deportivo Alaves solidified their spot in La Liga next season after an impressive 4-2 victory over Granada, while 16th-place Getafe secured their safety with a valiant 2-1 win over Levante after a beautiful strike from Take Kubo in the final moments. 17th-place Huesca was unable to confirm their stay in La Liga, however. In an exciting end-to-end match against Real Betis, Huesca will feel hard done by as Betis were rewarded a controversial penalty, which Borja Iglesias effortlessly scored as his team won 1-0. Just outside the relegation zone, Huesca is level on points with 18th-place Elche, leaving their fate to be decided next week.
As for the teams currently in the relegation zone, Elche was able to carve out a precious slice of hope with a gallant 3-1 comeback win over 12th-place Cadiz. To stay in La Liga, Elche need to carry this form over to their next match against Athletic Bilbao while also hoping Huesca loses to Valencia, which very well may happen.
19th-place Real Valladolid, on the other hand, have much less hope as they were mauled 4-1 by Real Sociedad. The 2020 Copa del Rey winners found themselves 4-0 up only 35 minutes into the game as they bludgeoned lowly Valladolid to death. Valladolid did get one goal back, but it was merely a consolation. Sitting 2 points behind Elche and Huesca it looks very likely they will go down even though nothing is official yet. Although, they will find themselves in the middle of the biggest drama in Spain next weekend as they face Atletico Madrid. If Valladolid pulls, off a victory here, they could deny Atletico from winning the title and possibly avoid relegation too, if other results go their way.
Sadly, 20th-place and bottom-spot Eibar have been formally relegated after a crushing 4-1 loss to 13th-place Valencia, despite a recent push in the past few games, which gave them hope of survival. The perennial underdog and fan-favorite team are beloved among football enjoyers for their small budget and city but big dreams and ambitions. Eibar’s miraculous seven-year stay in the Spanish topflight concluded last Sunday as they found themselves 3-0 down within half an hour, similar to Valladolid. Unlike Valladolid though, Eibar immediately fought back as Bryan Gil scored to make it 3-1. The momentum then went in Eibar’s favor, and a world-class double save from Valencia’s keeper, Jasper Cillessen, denied Eibar from scoring a second. Unfortunately, they could not maintain the pressure, and Valencia scored a fourth at the beginning of the second half, sending Eibar down to the Segunda Division.
Speaking of the Segunda Division, the second tier of football in Spain, Espanyol and Mallorca have comfortably secured promotion to La Liga after finishing first and second in the table, respectively. The final promoted team will be decided via play-offs between Almeria, Leganes, Girona and Sporting Gijon or Rayo Vallecano.