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'Hay Liga' After All as Attrition Adds Stakes to Spain's Title Race

Atlético Madrid's double-digit lead has dwindled, and two potentially decisive headlining matches remain to determine who will be king of La Liga.

There is an oft-used phrase in Spain when there's a title race to behold. ¡Hay Liga! Literally, there is Liga, as in "game on" or "buckle up for the final stretch." It's usually spoken out of joyful anticipation, giddily shouted so you can hear the inverted exclamation mark before it's even said.

But what happens when no one wants to win La Liga? Is there...Liga? Can there still be a glorious final stretch in a war of attrition? Maybe it's the pandemic's squeeze—the global drop in revenue and transfer funds, the shortened preseason, the rampant injuries, the shadows of big-name departures. Or maybe it's Atlético Madrid showing its Spanish hospitality once again, gifting some springtime hope to its hated rivals by giving away a 10-point lead.

In the last 10 matches, Atlético has dropped 14 points in La Liga; it has lost more matches (two) in its last seven than in the first 22. At the end of February, with a double-digit lead, it was Atleti’s title to lose, and it's made a spectacle out of losing it, giving us reason to dust off the “¡Hay Liga!” trope. Just not in the way we expected.

Atletico Madrid, Barcelona and Real Madrid are vying for La Liga's title

Off-the-field headlines have dominated La Liga this season: Lionel Messi's ongoing transfer drama, a shortfall of two billion euros in income that has exposed Barcelona most of all, a new Microsoft-Paint-inspired Spanish federation logo. It hasn't been the ideal year in any setting, and that has absolutely applied to Spanish soccer.

On Monday, Barcelona’s listless, last-minute win over 10-man relegation candidate Real Valladolid unfurled the most tepid of “¡Hay Liga!” calls. Given Atlético’s loss to Sevilla on Sunday, Barça cut Atlético’s lead to one point with nine games left to play while Real crawled into range, just three points back of Atlético. 

The title stakes for this Saturday's Clásico are now clear, but the quality level of the combatants doesn't demand that same kind of anticipation as past Clásicos. Does that mean El Clásico will never be the same? Not quite, it just means it will take some getting used to before its next star-studded iteration. But one point appears clear: a team other than Barcelona or Real, for once, has turned El Clásico into a must-watch event. Without Atlético's collapse, this weekend's El Clásico would have veered more toward a glorified legends match than a possible title-decider. Or better yet, a potential zero-sum, La Liga elimination match, with the loser seeing its title fate likely wrested from its hands by the victor. 

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Like the October edition at Camp Nou, there will be no Luis Suárez, no Gareth Bale, no Cristiano Ronaldo, and likely no Eden Hazard, but this time around there will also be no Sergio Ramos and Raphaël Varane. And yet Spain will be as invested in the result as ever before. Another Clásico win for in-form Real, which has gone unbeaten in its last 11 with nine wins and two draws, could very well make Zinedine Zidane's battle-tested mix of veterans and phenoms-in-waiting the favorites for a second straight title. A win for Ronald Koeman's Barcelona, which has rebounded to go 19 unbeaten in league play, and the crisis-hit club could exit from the turmoil with yet another trophy.

On paper, La Liga looks as tight as the epic 2015-16 campaign. Barcelona nearly crashed in spectacular fashion yet held on to win the league on the final day by one point over Real and three points over Atlético. But in that same year, Atlético came back to beat Barcelona in the Champions League quarterfinals before losing to Real on penalties in the final. This year, only a beleaguered Real finds itself in the final eight, far from European favorites but never counted out, in what will be the first Champions League quarterfinals without Messi or Ronaldo in 16 years.

But the truth is, while it may feel like some fútbol purgatory, La Liga is not in a bad place—Atlético, Barça and Real each have more points entering Week 30 than they had last year. Really, La Liga is just dealing with the shell-shocked reality of the last year like the rest of us. A better way to put it would be to say La Liga is just back down to Earth.

For more than a decade, we’ve been spoiled by a league that had been lifted to the heavens by a pair of deities. Six of the last 10 Champions League trophies, including five straight from 2013-14 to 2017-18, did their summer holidaying in Spain, resting on the laurels of Messi and Ronaldo.

Revenues soared, popularity boomed and some of the best individual soccer the world had ever seen was played on a weekly basis, one star one-upping the other in a magisterial tug-of-war where records crashed like lightning bolts thrown from soccer's Mount Olympus. But the façade was slowing cracking and the financial gap between giant and minnow was growing. Yet, we kept holding out for more despite knowing that stars don’t last forever no matter how hot they burn.

Then, last spring, as Valencia fans returned to Spain from a Champions League trip to Europe’s first COVID-19 epicenter, the bubble burst, the world stood still and crippling financial situations halted standard operating procedures for even the world's most untouchable clubs. In a metaphor for the misplaced hope put into Europe’s response to the pandemic over the last year, the Spanish federation delayed the 2020 Copa del Rey final until this spring; it was a safe bet to make sure it was played to an audience of rabid supporters thrilled to have their gamedays back. On Saturday, it was played without fans, just as the 2021 Copa del Rey final will be next weekend. 

After this weekend’s Clásico, all eyes will turn to Barcelona’s showdown with Atlético at the Camp Nou on May 9, yet there is an air of disillusionment, one that suggests that it, too, may come to disappoint—at this rate, perhaps the title race could be decided by then.

So yes, Hay Liga, but maybe just not the one we have come to expect. More so, it’s the Liga a year like this deserves.