Well, we’re finally here. After weeks of waiting for La Liga’s advantage-holders Real Madrid to play its long-awaited game-in-hand against Celta Vigo, the contest is now in the books, and the table set. A 4-1 Blancos victory at Balaidos means that both Madrid and Barca (as well as the rest of the field) have now played 37 league matches. And as expected, Madrid sit three points clear of their blaugrana rivals. Just as it should, everything will come down to Matchday 38, this Sunday.
All eyes have been fixated on this day since Barcelona’s Lionel Messi scored that unforgettable 96th minute winner in last month’s Clasico that set this genuine title race in motion. Although it’s been clear that both Madrid and Barcelona have carried their fair share of deficiencies at various stretches of the pitch over the span of this Primera campaign, there had been a growing sentiment that both giants would most likely plough their way through their remaining fixtures whilst being remotely but surely tethered to each other.
After all, we know that Barcelona can still look like the Greatest Show On Grass, just as they can transform into enigmatic basket cases on any given matchday. Just as Real Madrid’s idea of defending is basically Sergio Ramos playing Capture the Flag by himself, we all know that they can also find a goal at any time from any place. These are absolutely the two best teams in Spain, even if neither seem in any hurry to be the best.
So what will happen on Sunday? Well, Barcelona needs to defeat Eibar at Camp Nou if it even hopes to entertain the idea of a last-minute sneak attack on its rivals. This feels likely considering that Barca currently sports a six-match winning streak in La Liga, while Eibar has just one victory in that same time. So, the task seems easy enough. Still, this Barca side has shot itself in its own Tiempos on more than one occasion this season.
But what’s most likely to happen on Sunday? That’d be Madrid handling Malaga at the Rosaleda, rendering Barcelona’s hypothetical remuntada all but moot. A single point will give the Merengues the crown, and considering that they haven’t tasted defeat since El Clasico, reason would point towards the Occam’s Razor option of a White Sunday being the be-all and end-all of the narrative.
But hear me out. If there’s hope for a wrench in Madrid’s plan to glory, Malaga certainly isn’t the least likely to locate it. One of the Primera’s most in-form teams, Michel’s Boquerones, haven’t lost in six league matches and were on a four-game winning streak prior to last week’s draw with Real Sociedad. In fact, you’d have to go back to the April 1 visit of Atletico Madrid to find their last defeat at Rosaleda. It’s almost as if that optimistic preseason outlook that so many pundits had of Malaga under Juande Ramos is finally realizing itself under Michel.
Of course, Spanish football’s top-heavy, capital-centric disposition has led some skeptics to wonder if this weekend’s result hasn’t already been determined. This current conspiracy stems partially from the Malaga boss’s deep affection for Madrid, his former club. But the worries go even further back to Madrid’s purchase of Isco from Malaga in 2013.
In that contract, Malaga are promised a €1 million variable bonus for every season Madrid wins the Primera with Isco (up to €3 million). This has left many onlookers — most of them wearing blaugrana-tinted Ray-Bans — to wonder if the Albicelestes might simply throw the towel in early on Sunday by deploying a weak starting eleven. Michel’s side will be coming into the match with little to play for in reality, seeing as their current table standing guarantees they finish no higher than 11th place and no lower than 13th. While these fears are mostly the result of fandom run amok, lack of inspiration has never been the catalyst for anything great.
There’s still a glimmer of hope for Barcelona, however, and it comes in the form of an old friend. Sandro Ramirez, Malaga’s leading scorer and former Barca academy grad, expressed his ambitions for Sunday’s crucial showdown: “I hope I can score a goal and give the league to Barca.”
It’s a mere sliver, but it’s something. Thirty-seven games in, something is just about all anyone can really ask for.