Just when you think La Liga is done providing any more twists and turns, Barcelona goes and loses 3-1 to Real Sociedad. This season has been unpredictable, at least by the league's standards, and that result only illustrates the fact more.
With Barca slipping, it keeps the door open for Atletico Madrid to do the impossible and break up the Spanish duopoly. Until that moment actually happens, though, it only seems a pipe dream.
That isn't the only race going on in La Liga, though, as the battle for fourth and relegation fight remain extremely tight. Once you get outside the top three, there are a lot of clubs within just a few points of one another, and one bad result could mean the difference between success and failure when looking back on the season.
Here's a look at the table:
The four clubs below are the biggest winners from Saturday's results.
Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid
Barcelona don't have a great record at the Anoeta lately, but that 3-1 loss to Real Sociedad was shocking. When Lionel Messi canceled out Alex Song's own goal, it seemed that Barca had regained their footing and would roll on from there, or at least hold out for the draw.
Then Antoine Griezmann struck in the 54th minute, and David Zurutuza added an insurance goal five minutes later.
Gerardo Martino admitted after the match that he got his tactics wrong, per Barca's official site:
“I didn’t read the game correctly.”
The manager explained that “having three forwards implies that we wouldn’t be playing with four midfielders. I thought that it was better to line up a double pivot, with Song.” He added: “rotations are good when the results are positive.” When asked about his substitutions after Real had scored their third goal, the manager said that “we didn’t have the necessity to rethink our approach and when we decided to make our first sub, they scored the 3-1.”
Barcelona's loss means that Real Madrid are three points clear atop the table following their 3-0 win over Elche, and Atletico Madrid could join them should they beat Osasuna. Those three points could be massive in a few months.
Madrid have yet to play Barca in the Santiago Bernabeu. With a win in that, the lead would grow to six points, which would likely prove insurmountable this late into the season.
The margin for error is minute when it comes to winning La Liga. A three-point gap may not seem like much, but it's massive when a total in the high 90s is required to be first at the end of the season.
Atletico and Madrid are now in the driver's seat, especially when considering Barca's recent run of league results, per Filippo Ricci of Gazzetta dello Sport:
Last 7 Liga games: Real Madrid 19 points out of 21, Barcelona 11— Filippo Ricci (@filippomricci) February 22, 2014
The win was also huge for Real Sociedad, as they moved to within a point of fourth-place Athletic Bilbao, with their Basque rivals yet to play in Matchday 25. The difference should grow to four points again, as Bilbao have last-place Real Betis on Sunday.
Regardless, this is quite a turnaround for La Real after the way they started the year, getting unceremoniously dumped from the Champions League group stage without winning a game.
Now Jagoba Arrasate's side is primed for a late-season push and could have a chance to redeem itself in the Champions League next season.
With as well as Real Sociedad can hit on the counter, they're built to bully the lesser teams and withstand the stronger teams.
Much further down the table, Malaga maintained a three-point gap on Real Valladolid to stay out of the drop zone. Los Boquerones are 18th in the league playing away from La Rosaleda, so taking a point off Almeria is a solid result.
Betis and Rayo Vallecano seem locked into the relegation zone. Vallecano have the worst defensive record in the league, while Betis are 11 points off Malaga in 17th.
That leaves one spot up for grabs. The 12th through 18th clubs are all within five points, so there's still a lot of movement to come.
For now, though, Malaga ensured that they're one step closer to avoiding relegation.