|Chasing the pack... Real Madrid will have to dig deep as they chase down rivals in the La Liga race. (Photo credit: @Realmadriden via Twitter)|
The La Liga is characterized as typically two horse race but the current dynamics and standings leave us wondering if this is the best season we’ve seen yet.
Footballnus exclusive for this week looks at the chances of every contender, where they stand, where they were and the likelihood of success and despair.
Gerard Pique knew, and maybe they all did. By then at least, at one point or another, they had all said it, even if they didn't believe it.
That day, though, he actually did and soon, the rest joined him. For once, the Barcelona defender could enjoy doing a post-match interview, he said.
And so, standing there at the Sanchez Pizjuan at the end of February, following a 6-1 Barcelona win over Sevilla, he took up his position in front of the microphone and the empty stands, smiled and said: "Yes, of course, there is a league title race still - worse things have been seen."
Was it happening again? Could the club that has lost three European Cups in a combined total of fewer than three minutes, two of them under Simeone's management, be about to lose a league title in catastrophic fashion as well?
Worse things have been seen, but not much worse.
When Atletico beat Cadiz 4-2 on Jan. 31, the title race seemed done.
January closed with Atletico 10 points clear at the top - and with a game in hand. They'd reached 50 points and were well on course for 100.
For context, Madrid and Barcelona were on course for 76.
In eight games, 11 points slipped away after they had dropped just 17 in 19 matches prior.
They hit the bar, the post, the goalkeeper and missed sitters, but they just didn't find a way through like they had before.
Fear visited them again; pressure came, fatalism. The games in hand - the points of which were inevitably tallied in advance, as if they didn't even have to be played - were used up, those extra lives gone.
At Barcelona and Madrid meanwhile, something moved.
Slowly at first, but with each passing game, they picked up speed.
It wasn't always pretty, but the points were there. At the end of a 1-0 win at Real Valladolid, Madrid's Lucas Vazquez went around telling his teammates how important that result was.
Madrid had held in there, they had been let off often, and now there was a chance. Somehow.
The only doubt is whether they have left it too late, whether Atletico can hang on to what they have or whether Real Madrid will spring surprises and hit them all unawares.
The derby had done the most damage to the league leaders, an opportunity for Atletico to effectively remove their rivals only for Benzema to get that late equalizer.
But it wasn't the only one: Celta had equalized in the 89th minute. Looking for a last-minute equalizer against Levante, they had left an open goal and conceded instead.
It cuts both ways, of course: last weekend, Alaves might have done the same, only for Atletico's Jan Oblak to save a late penalty; vulnerability revealed and nerves there for all to see, but this time, disaster averted.
"We have two huge teams behind us who won't lose any games," Simeone says. Which can't be quite right -- unless he's sure that his side won't beat Barcelona and that the Clasico will be a draw -- but which tells you something about the pressure they're under, the mindset they must adopt.
There's no room for half-measures, no place for mistakes, or relaxing.
Atletico have not had an easy game since Cadiz, every exhausting, tense week yields a coronary; now they have to get through them come what may. No excuses, no way out, no easy ride.
And yet it's hard to avoid the feeling that Simeone's side will have to win at least seven of their remaining 10 games, and not lose to Barcelona.
It is hard to judge who has the hardest fixtures, on the face of it.
Sevilla, Betis and Barcelona away, suggest perhaps Atletico.
Although Barcelona's run of Madrid, Villarreal and Valencia away and Atletico at home is not easy either.
Nor is Madrid's, with Los Blancos still to navigate home games against Barcelona, Sevilla and Villarreal.
If the three candidates get the same results against these teams as they did last time they played them, Atletico would finish on 94, Barcelona on just 79 and Madrid on 83.
"I've been telling the players that the objective is important and it's wonderful if you can get there but the journey is more important, what matters most, what you enjoy most, is travelling the path," Simeone said, although he likely didn't believe it.
Instead, his other mantra stands: "game by game".