With just over a month of action to go, the LaLiga title race has arguably never been closer.
After Real Madrid’s 2-1 victory over Barcelona on Saturday evening, Zinedine Zidane’s side are now at the top with fellow townsman Atletico with 66 points, with Barca one point behind.
While Atletico – who looks shaky after winning just two of their last five – has a game up their sleeve tonight at Real Betis, the reigning Spanish top champions in the city now seem to be at full speed.
But what are the main factors that can help or hinder the top three in Spain for the rest of the season? Sportsmail looks at which team is in the best shape to take the title.
Real Madrid returned to the top of LaLiga after a 2-1 win in El Clasico against Barcelona
Joao Felix will be the main player this weekend in the absence of top scorer Luis Suarez and Marcos Llorente, who are both suspended against Betis. He could also turn out to be the main player in what’s left of the season.
Suarez is a goal away from 20 for the season – no one could have asked for more, but as Atlético continues to recoil from the rival’s goal in matches, the 34-year-old cannot be expected to hurt opponents, especially when they have defenders of the caliber of Diego Carlos and Jules Kounde, just like Sevilla last weekend.
Atlético needs the magic of their £ 110 million contract and they need him now before their diminishing lead finally fades.
Atlético needs record-signing Joao Felix (R) to rise in the absence of top scorer Luis Suarez
Beyond the obvious talisman captain Messi, Barcelona needs Ousmane Dembélé to maintain his incredible moment of form until the end of the season.
His goal last weekend was huge, to bring Barça closer to the leaders. With his pace and his bipedal unpredictability, he puts the opponent’s defense on the back foot and makes room for Messi and Antoine Griezmann. He’s never started a full season for Barcelona, but this is starting to look like this.
Fueled by the confidence Ronald Koeman clearly has in him, and by the urgency of the situation – the team’s and his own with only one year left on his contract – he is finally living up to, it must continue.
Barcelona hopes that Ousmane Dembélé (right) can maintain his excellent form alongside Leo Messi
Toni Kroos’ pass for Vinicius fell on the chest of the attacker on Tuesday evening as a gift from God. The German’s success rate is no secret, but more than ever his precision delivery is counted, usually by Karim Benzema and on Tuesday by the Brazilian.
Modric is not far behind him. He scoffed at the suggestion that Spanish teams lack the intensity of their Premier League rivals. And it was his assist that enabled Vinicius to get the third of the night.
As long as Modric and Kroos find each other with passes and make the Real Madrid training stadium their backyard, Madrid is very much in this title race.
The combination of Toni Kroos (L) and Luka Modric in midfield will be key if Real LaLiga wants to win again
REASONS TO BE MERRY / FEAR
Clasico’s result wasn’t ideal for Diego Simeone’s men – they now have company at the top.
But if Atletico can beat Betis on Sunday, the difference will be back to three points. The fear is that missing Llorente and Suarez in the same game will be too much for them.
The duo have scored 28 of their 51 goals this season. With Moussa Dembele still struggling with what appears to be Covid’s aftermath, there is a lack of offensive threat that could ultimately cost them the title.
Moussa Dembele has been struggling since he signed with Atletico, which needs more goals
Lionel Messi is focused – so anything is possible. When he gave that motivational team talk in the tunnel during halftime on Monday, he didn’t say: if we don’t improve, the game will slip away.
He said, ‘If we don’t improve, the competition will slip away. He sees the bigger picture and with the captain believing Barcelona’s title to be lost, everyone else has to believe too. The fear is that two matches against direct rivals will not end well. ‘
Despite last night’s disappointing loss, they host Atletico next month. As long as they are remote by then, it is still in their hands.
Lionel Messi sees the big picture, but will his teammates perform this season when it matters?
The Champions League is the reason to be both cheerful and anxious. Tuesday night’s performance against Liverpool was a reminder of what Real Madrid is capable of.
And the European Cup remains their league of choice, but it may take them to focus on the domestic triumph.
If they make it to the semifinals, there will be even more reasons to take their eyes off the prize.
Real Madrid must ensure that the Champions League does not become a distraction from their title expectations
What momentum? The bun at the beginning of the season has long been quenched. For Atletico it is not so much a matter of shifting up a gear, but starting the season again.
For a team so reliant on intensity, Atletico looked flat against Sevilla over the weekend. They must find a burst of energy elsewhere.
Before Saturday night, they had not lost in the league since the beginning of December. It was an incredible run as they wiped out 11 points from Atletico Madrid’s lead. They just have to keep it going.
Barcelona was on a great run before Saturday’s defeat in El Clasico against Real Madrid
Zidane has not seen his team lose in the league since the end of January.
It has put them back in the game, and it has been linked to Champions League appearances that have brought the team within 90 minutes of the semi-finals.
They are now on the shore with all speed.
Diego Simeone has been telling anyone who will listen for a while that he never thought his Atletico Madrid side would walk away with the title.
Perhaps his premonition of the narrowing rift at the top has translated into too many negative decisions to the point where a stumbling block is now starting to look like a collapse.
Always better as a coach of the underdogs, he has to show that he can lead from the front when his team is up front… because for now they still are.
Diego Simeone has always been hoping for Atletico’s title – but is that the team’s problem?
Koeman has also reduced his team’s chances, but in a way that took the pressure off his players.
If they hit the frontline soon, his psychological game might have to adjust accordingly.
It will be a new test for a coach who has passed almost all his exams in his first season at the club.
However, Koeman has managed to take the pressure off his Barcelona superstars
Zidane had his defining press conference moment in February, when he became angry with reporters who demanded respect for himself and his team.
“We won the competition last year,” he said furiously. “We deserve to have the opportunity to fight for this one.”
The players seemed to be responding to their boss’s anger. And of course he is right. They are the keepers and the way the season goes will stay that way until May 23rd.
Real Madrid players responded to Zidane’s anger that the team is not getting enough respect