Barcelona in driving seat as Spanish title race nears end
BARCELONA, Spain — The Spanish league title race is reaching its climax with two rounds left and just one point separating the top three teams.
Leader Barcelona is ahead of Atletico Madrid on head-to-head goals, and both have a one-point advantage over Real Madrid.
All three teams play at the same time on Sunday.
Barcelona hosts crosstown rival Espanyol, knowing that a win combined with an Atletico loss and a draw by Madrid would secure back-to-back titles for the Catalan club.
“We all play at five o’clock (1500 GMT) but the only game that I am interested in is our match,” Barcelona coach Luis Enrique said Saturday. “Tomorrow there is only one team that can be proclaimed champion, and that is us.”
Atletico visits the already relegated Levante, while Madrid hosts Valencia.
While Barcelona can concentrate on adding to its 23 league titles, Atletico and Madrid will be looking ahead to their clash in the Champions League final on May 28.
With three straight wins by a combined score of 16-0, Barcelona has rebounded from a run of four matches without a victory that squandered a commanding lead.
“The three points that will push us closer to the title is our motivation,” Luis Enrique said.
Marc-Andre ter Stegen will play in Barcelona’s goal for the injured Claudio Bravo, while defender Jeremy Mathieu was cleared to play after injuring his right knee in March.
Atletico will again be without coach Diego Simeone as he serves the second of a three-game ban after a second ball was thrown from Atletico’s dugout to disrupt an attack by Malaga two rounds ago.
Atletico, which eliminated Bayern Munich from the Champions League semifinals on Tuesday, has ground out three consecutive 1-0 victories in the Liga.
“We only have one pressing need, to win, and then we can start thinking about the last match,” said Simeone. “This is an important game against a team that is stung after being relegated and will want to leave a good impression in its farewell to the first division at home.”
Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane also said he wanted his players to stay focused on the league title.
“We have two more games that are two finals for the league,” Zidane said. “While there are minutes remaining we have to believe in our chances, right down until the last second of the last game.”
Madrid will miss Gareth Bale because of a minor right-knee injury, but Zidane said that Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema would play against Valencia.
Both players have been hampered by right-leg injuries. Benzema missed this week’s 1-0 win over Manchester City on Wednesday when Bale’s goal sent Madrid into the final of the Champions League.
Madrid is on a 10-round winning streak that has catapulted it back into contention. It faces a Valencia side that, despite wrapping up a disappointing season, stunned Barcelona with a win at Camp Nou last month and hasn’t lost to Madrid in their last four league meetings.
The league’s last round will send Barcelona to Granada, while Atletico hosts Celta Vigo and Madrid is at Deportivo La Coruna.