Since the 2020/21 La Liga fixtures were announced on the last day of August, matchday 25 was always going to be one of the biggest, with Atlético Madrid looking to extend their La Liga lead.
Three games, in particular, stood out. Sevilla hosted Barcelona for the Saturday lunchtime kickoff. The following evening, Atlético Madrid travelled to Villareal and on Monday, Real Sociedad took on Real Madrid in the Spanish capital.
In the previous campaign, all six teams had finished in the league’s top six places and ahead of the weekend, all the teams were once again in the top six.
Atlético Madrid Extend La Liga Lead After Real Madrid Stumble
Barcelona Play Their Best Football of the Campaign
Third-placed Barcelona started off the weekend with an impressive 2-0 win over Sevilla, who sat just two points behind them in fourth. A Lionel Messi assist for Ousmane Dembélé in the 29th minute opened up the scoring and a late penalty from Messi sealed the victory in southern Spain.
The win sprang Barcelona into second place, just two points behind Atlético Madrid in La Liga and marked their fifteenth consecutive match unbeaten in the league and second consecutive clean sheet.
After a rough start to the season, in which they won just four of their first ten matches, including losses to Altéti and arch-rivals Real Madrid, Ronald Koeman’s men have turned it around.
Their victory over Sevilla marked their first win in a big match in La Liga all year. Catalan newspaper Mundo Deportivo hailed the result as “the best Barcelona of the year.”
“Barça had completed a great first half, probably one of the best of the season, in one of the most complicated fields,” Barcelona editor Joan Poquí wrote.
In the aftermath of the match, Sevilla midfielder Joan Jordan said the visitors had been comfortable in the ground in which Barcelona had been routed by Los Nervionenses just two weeks earlier in the Copa del Rey semi-final.
Centre-back Gerard Piqué added to the sense of optimism emerging among the Barcelona players, telling a post-match press conference that the Catalans were very much alive and in the title race.
“Usually when I come here and I have a microphone in front of me, it’s something bad,” Piqué said, as cited by the Guardian. “This time it’s a pleasure; today I can say I’m very proud of the team.
“We’ve shown that this team is very, very alive. 2021 has given us reasons to be confident,” he added. “No, the situation isn’t perfect but we hope to achieve something. Is there a title race? Of course, there is. Much worse things have happened.”
Altético Extend Lead At the top of La Liga After Tough Win
The following day, Atlético Madrid took the pitch against Villareal in La Liga. With just two points separating them from Barcelona and three from Real Madrid, Diego Simeone’s men desperately needed a win.
After a superb start to the season, Los Colchoneros had stumbled in the league of late, winning just one of their previous four matches and dropping as many points in two weeks as they had in the previous five months. Over a month, their ten-point lead at the top of the table had nearly evaporated.
On top of that, Villareal sits at the bottom of the list when it comes to Altéti’s favourite places to play. Since the start of the Diego Simeone era in 2011, only Barcelona and Real Madrid have better records against Los Colchoneros than Villareal do. Heading into Saturday, Atlético had not won at La Cerámica in La Liga in five years, losing three of those matches.
Simeone was aware of all this on the touchline as the match kicked off and his suffering was apparent as Villareal had the better of the opportunities, with a strike from Gerard Moreno forcing a world-class save from Jan Oblak.
Just ten minutes later, however, Atéti scored after a cross from Thomas Lemar was headed in by centre-back Stefan Savic, but a heavy deflection ruled it as an own goal.
After going ahead, Atléti reverted to the side they were two years ago. They sat back and defended for their lives. Villareal continued to create chances, with seven of their 20 shots on target. By comparison, Atléti managed just six shots, of which five were on target.
However, the Yellow Submarines would not get past the Atléti defence and eventually, they scored a second goal courtesy of João Félix in the 68th minute. The strike sealed the victory for Simeone’s men, who pulled five points ahead of Barcelona with a game in hand and six ahead of Real Madrid.
“It was a very important victory because we have achieved it on a difficult field. We get three points. And we are very happy about it,” Savic said in the post-match press conference.
“The team responded in difficult moments, and that is what gave me the most joy,” he added. “We knew how to suffer. After the first half, we were 1-0 on the scoreboard and we knew that in the second half they were going to push us. The team knew how to hold on.”
Next up for the league leaders are Real Madrid. The two sides face off at the Wanda Metropolitano on March 7.
Real Madrid Drop Points Against In-Form Real Sociedad
Meanwhile, the defending champions sat in third place after the weekend’s action and struggled at the Estado Alfredo di Stefano, only managing a 1-1 draw against fifth-place Real Sociedad.
Despite the raft of injuries to key players, such as Eden Hazard, Karim Benzema, Dani Carvajal and Sergio Ramos, Los Blancos had lost just one of their previous 14 matches in La Liga and won their past four before the encounter with the Basque outfit.
Real Sociedad, meanwhile, had lost just one of their previous eight La Liga clashes and were coming off the back of three consecutive wins in which they had outscored their opponents by nine goals and conceded none.
Los Merengues dominated possession in the first half and beginning of the second while also enjoying some of the best goal-scoring opportunities of the match. However, Real Sociedad broke the deadlock first, with Portu heading home a left-footed cross from Nacho Monreal in the 55th minute.
The last 35 minutes of the match saw Real Madrid continue to press for the equaliser and, once again, dominate possession and get the best chances to score. A few quick counter-attacks from Real Sociedad exposed the high line of Los Blancos, but the side never put too much pressure on Madrid.
As Real Madrid have so often managed to do this campaign, they snagged an equaliser in the dying minutes of the match. Vinícius Júnior slotted a right-footed shot past Álex Remiro in the 89th minute and spurred the Madrid side on to seek another in added time.
Real Sociedad stuck all 11 men behind the ball in the aftermath of the goal and spent the last four minutes of the match putting out fires before the final whistle blew, delivering La Reales a hard-earned if not slightly disappointing draw.
What’s Next in La Liga’s Title Race?
Matchweek 25 was the most anticipated by the fans of the teams involved and neutrals alike. It did not disappoint either.
Atlético Madrid remain top of La Liga, five points ahead of both Real Madrid and Barcelona with a game in hand.
The Madrid derby on March 7 will be Real’s last chance to go head-to-head with the league leaders and cut down the deficit. Los Blancos defeated Atléti 2-0 back in December and will need a similar performance on Sunday to keep their hopes of a repeat title win alive.
Meanwhile, on April 11, Real Madrid host Barcelona in the second El Clásico of the year. Los Blancos dominated in the tie back in October, with a come-from-behind 3-1 over the Catalans. Needless to say, the result will be critical to the title race.
Barcelona then face Atléti for the second time on May 9, the penultimate week of the season. Depending on how the results pan out, the encounter could determine the winner of La Liga or merely serve as a consolation match.