MADRID (Reuters) - La Liga is set for one of its most thrilling finishes when Barcelona host leaders Atletico Madrid in a winner-takes-all showdown at the Nou Camp on the final day of the campaign on Saturday.
Only twice in the history of Spain’s top flight has the title been decided with a direct head-to-head clash on the last day and when the calendar was set last year few would have expected Atletico to be competing with vastly wealthier rivals Barca for the championship at this stage.
Real Madrid, the world’s richest club by income ahead of Barca, were in contention until last weekend when they were beaten at Celta Vigo but it is the capital’s second club, who have about a quarter of the resources of the big two, who are close to pulling off a remarkable achievement.
Atletico have not been in contention in La Liga since they last won in 1996, tasting relegation at the start of this century, but are now in with a chance of claiming an historic La Liga and European double.
Whatever the outcome of Saturday’s game, thoughts will immediately turn to the following week’s Champions League final against Real in Lisbon, when Atletico will be looking to win their first continental crown and deny their glamorous neighbours a record-extending 10th.
“We have an historic chance to win two titles and we are proud because we have won over a lot of people with our passion and excitement,” Atletico captain Gabi said at a promotional event on Wednesday.
“A lot of people want us to win and this team has shown an identity that we haven’t seen for a very long time,” added the midfielder, who has flourished under coach Diego Simeone and whose consistency has been key to Atletico’s recent success.
“We have to keep doing the same we have been doing all season, intensity and confidence.”
After 37 matches in La Liga, Atletico are top on 89 points, with Barca on 86 and Real on 84.
If Barca, chasing a fifth title in six years, beat Atletico on Saturday they will be champions as they would have a better head-to-head record after the title rivals drew 0-0 at the Calderon in Madrid in January.
A draw would be enough for Atletico to become the first side other than Real and Barca to win La Liga since Valencia in 2004.
The last time the title was decided with a head-to-head clash was in 1950-51, when Atletico pipped Sevilla. The only other occasion was five years earlier when Sevilla edged Barca.
Atletico and Barca have already played each other five times this season in a series of closely-fought encounters where the Catalan club had the lion’s share of possession but were mostly thwarted by a mean defence.
Barca edged Atletico to clinch the season-opening Spanish Super Cup, when Neymar’s goal in a 1-1 draw at the Calderon in the first leg was enough to secure victory after the pair played out a 0-0 stalemate the Nou Camp in the return.
After holding Barca at the Calderon in January in La Liga, Atletico clung on for a 1-1 draw at the Nou Camp in last month’s Champions League quarter-final, first leg and then won 1-0 in the return in Madrid.
Barca captain Xavi believes the key to Saturday’s game will be to score first and force Atletico to push forward.
“They are the best in defence, they pressure you, support each other and have different options up front,” Xavi told a news conference on Wednesday.
“We thought we’d lost the League and these things happen in football, and now it’s in our hands,” added the Spain playmaker.
“It’s a unique game and I don’t know if it will happen again. We are still hungry and the fans should be encouraged.”
Coach Gerardo Martino, an Argentine compatriot of Simeone‘s, and the Barca players all-but wrote off their chances after a 2-2 draw at home to Getafe this month but Atletico and Real also stumbled, allowing Barca to stay in the hunt.
However, even victory on Saturday may not be enough to save Martino, who has had a disappointing first season in charge, and many expect former Barca and Spain midfielder Luis Enrique, now at Celta, to take over for next season.
Editing by Amlan Chakraborty