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, who on Friday confirmed he was leaving Celta, to take over for next season.
Jordi Alba, Gerard Piqué and Neymar are all included in the Barcelona squad despite carrying knocks. With Carles Puyol also returing to the squad that means goalkeeper Víctor Valdés is the only man missing.
Diego Costa has shaken off a leg muscle strain and will be in the Atletico Madrid starting line-up. The team's top scorer missed Sunday’s 1-1 draw at home to Malaga. That means Atletico's full squad have trained ahead of the match.
Tata Martino: "What we can expect to see in this match isn't going to vary compared to the previous encounters, unless I play Pinto up front, which I'm not going to do. They have a lot going for them and stop you playing your game. Diego Costa is one of the best forwards in Europe, but we lost to them when he wasn't playing. Atletico aren't so much about individuals: they stand out as a unit."
Diego Simeone: "I don't think that the game will be decided early on, but I expect Barcelona to start strong. I think we will see the best Barcelona of recent weeks. They have an extraordinary team and play at home. It will be one of the most complicated Barcelona teams we could possibly deal with. But we know what to expect. We know where our strengths lie and what our weaknesses are. We have to put in a great performance."
OPTA HEAD-TO-HEAD STATS
OPTA MATCH FACTS
Barcelona have won their last six league meetings with Atletico Madrid in the Nou Camp, scoring 4.3 goals per game on average.
The Red-and-Whites have not lost any of their five meetings with Barcelona so far this season (W1 D4).
Against no La Liga side has Lionel Messi scored more goals than he has against Atleti (17, level with Osasuna).
If they win this game, Barcelona will claim their 23rd La Liga title and their fifth in the last six seasons.
Atleti need just a point to claim their 10th top-flight title, but they haven’t recorded one in the Nou Camp since 2006 (1-1).
Diego Costa has played more La Liga games against Barcelona without scoring than against any other side (seven).
The Catalans are winless in two league games (D2); they have not gone three without a win since the end of the 2008/09 season (four).
Seven of Atletico’s last 10 league goals have been headers, with five coming from corner situations.
Barcelona have conceded a league-high 25% of their goals from corners this term.
Lionel Messi has gone consecutive La Liga games against Atletico Madrid without scoring for the first time in his career.
David Villa, who scored his first goal for Atletico against Barcelona in the Supercopa, has scored four of his five La Liga goals against his former side in the Camp Nou.
Both of Barca’s goals against Atletico in all competitions this season have come from Neymar.
Atletico Madrid’s last two defeats in finals have both come at the Nou Camp (0-0 against Barcelona in this season’s Supercopa and 2-0 to Sevilla in the 2009/10 Copa del Rey).
Barcelona have scored the fewest headed goals in La Liga (five) but have conceded the fewest goals from outside the area (one).
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