After a series of fairly predictable finishes at the top of the table, La Liga is finally making it up to its fans.
For the first time since the 2006-07 season (when Real Madrid and Barcelona finished with 76 points and Sevilla had 71), it appears as though we'll close the campaign with the top three clubs within 10 points of each other. Through 29 matches, there is a mere sliver of separation as Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid sit atop the league with 70 points each while Barcelona lurk with 69 and the best goal differential in Spain.
As if that doesn't provide enough excitement for the final nine matches of the season, nearly the entire bottom half of the table is a jumbled mess—11th-place Granada and relegation-bound Getafe are separated by just six points.
Throw in the increasingly tightened race for the Europa League, and we've got the makings for a wild finish in the Primera Division.
Let's take a look at the updated table as clubs make it 30 matches played on the season.
|12||Celta de Vigo||30||9||6||15||-11||33|
Malaga 1-2 Espanyol
As OptaJose pointed out shortly before Matchday 30's opening fixture got underway, Espanyol had dominated Malaga in the previous three head-to-head matches:
3 - Malaga are without a win in three consecutive league meetings with Espanyol (D2 L1), failing to score in all three. Drought.— OptaJose (@OptaJose) March 25, 2014
That trend continued on Tuesday night. Javier Aguirre's club got a late goal from Luis "Pizzi" Afonso to escape Estadio La Rosaleda with a 2-1 victory.
Sergio Garcia's opening breakthrough in the 33rd minute gave Espanyol a lead that they barely had time to celebrate before Pablo Perez beat the offside trap and then fired across goalkeeper Francisco Casilla to equalize less than two minutes later.
Whether or not the 28-year-old Argentine midfielder stayed on was certainly up for debate, but the flag remained down and the score was even at one as both teams headed into the locker room.
Although the home squad finished with 59 percent of the possession and more overall shots, it was Espanyol who looked more dangerous and created better chances down the stretch. After a couple of fine saves from Malaga's Wilfredo Caballero, Pizzi gave the veteran keeper no chance in the 76th minute when he struck a superb match-winner into the bottom left corner of the net.
Where will Espanyol finish on the table?
Perez's response this time around was far more negative—he was given his marching orders in the 78th minute with a second yellow card, succinctly stalling Malaga's rally and ending their chances at earning a point.
"An important win for ensuring we stay up in the first division," Garcia told reporters after the match, according to the Associated Press (via The State).
Not only are they safe from the mess at the bottom half of the table, but Espanyol take another step towards Europe.
They remain five points behind seventh-place Villarreal (who have a match in hand) and a spot in the Europa League qualifying, but notching three points away from home, even against a Malaga side that is just four points clear of the relegation zone, is extremely vital at this point.
Elche 0-0 Athletic Bilbao
Struggling Elche held an in-form Athletic Bilbao side to a 0-0 draw at Martinez Valero on Tuesday, earning a much-needed point to help steer clear of the relegation zone for the time being.
Ernesto Valverde's club, which hadn't been shut out since Feb. 10, created plenty of chances under the difficult weather conditions, but Elche once again proved too stout in the back in front of their home crowd.
According to OptaJose, the Valencia-based side now has a league-best six straight clean sheets at home:
6 - Elche have recorded the longest run of home clean sheets by any La Liga team this season. Seriousness.— OptaJose (@OptaJose) March 25, 2014
Elche have scored more goals than only last-place Real Betis, but not conceding is a good way to avoid relegation. They now sit in 14th place, three points clear of Getafe.
Athletic Bilbao, meanwhile, have no real reason to sweat the draw. Fourteen points behind Barca and nine clear of Sevilla, Los Leones are safely entrenched in fourth place.
Sevilla 2-1 Real Madrid
Real Madrid entered full-panic mode by picking up a second straight loss in a 1-2 setback against Sevilla.
Early on, it looked like Los Blancos were ready to put their disappointment from a 3-4 loss to Barcelona in their previous match. Cristiano Ronaldo needed just 14 minutes to find the match's opening score. After that, it was a series of missed opportunities for Real Madrid.
The only scoring after Ronaldo's opener came from Carlos Bacca, as he netted a brace to hand his team the victory.
The frustration of Los Blancos losing streak appears to be taking a toll. Late in the match, Gareth Bale took a late free kick and he sailed it over the bar. Ronaldo was less than thrilled. Footy Vines caught his reaction:
Ronaldo's frustration is understandable, but he also hasn't shown anything on free kicks that he would have done better. On top of that, he wasn't having much success cracking the goal with his shots. He took eight on the day.
This was a painful missed opportunity for Los Blancos. They dominated in shots and possession and just about everything else, yet they couldn't pull even a single point against Sevilla.
Atletico Madrid 1-0 Granada
Despite an uninspired showing, Atletico Madrid moved in control of La Liga with a 1-0 victory over Granada.
Diego Costa provided the match's lone score off of a header on a Jose Sosa cross in the 63rd minute. His goal came just minutes after he had a header stopped by Granada keeper Roberto. That was the real story of the match: missed opportunities. Both sides had them. Atletico fired off 16 shots and had just the lone goal. Meanwhile, Granada got off seven shots, but not one was on target.
Don't look for Atletico to apologize for the win. They'll turn their gaze quickly to the future. There are just eight league matches left, and Atletico must protect their one-point table lead.
BarcaStat tweeted the remaining schedule of the top three:
You can't help but lock in on the season closer between Barcelona and Atletico. With Real's swoon, there is a strong chance that match will determine the league winner.
Getafe 0-1 Villarreal
Villarreal remain within shouting distance of fourth in La Liga, with a 1-0 win over Getafe on Thursday. The Yellow Submarine still has a lot of work to do, as it's eight points behind Athletic Bilbao with eight matches to play, but beating Getafe means Villarreal have a chance.
Jeremy Perbet scored in the fifth minute, giving Villarreal the victory. Scoring that early helped them coast for the rest of the match. According to WhoScored.com, Getafe owned 64 percent of possession and unleashed 12 shots.
Villarreal were simply the more clinical side, as they also had 12 shots, three of which were on target. They only needed one to go in, though, to seal the win.
The defeat keeps Getafe firmly in the relegation zone. They remain a point behind 17th-place Osasuna.
Real Sociedad 1-0 Valladolid
A Carlos Vela goal in the 23rd minute was the difference between Real Sociedad and Valladolid on Thursday.
La Real came into the day having lost three of their last four league matches, so it was important that they earned these three home points. Valladolid are all the way down at 19th, so losing or drawing Thursday's fixture would've meant vital points lost.
With the win, Real Sociedad remain seven points behind Athletic Bilbao in fourth. Like Villarreal, they still have a chance to sneak into the Champions League, but a lot of things need to go right. A loss to Valladolid would've almost certainly sealed Sociedad's faith, though, so at least the opportunity is still there.
Real Sociedad played very well defensively, limiting their opponents to just a single shot on target. Inigo Martinez and Ion Ansotegi were rocks in the centre of defence, while Jose Angel was bombing down the left flank.
La Real weren't at their best, but they'll take the win all the same.
Almeria 2-2 Valencia
Almeria earned a critical point in a spirited 2-2 draw with Valencia on Thursday. The draw keeps Almeria one point ahead of Osasuna and two ahead of Getafe. The battle for 18th and 19th is very cramped at the moment, so for Almeria to have gotten something out of this match is massive.
The result was all the more improbable when you consider Valencia went up 2-0 after the 34th minute. The first goal was the fastest in La Liga history, as Seydou Keita found the back of the net only a mere 7.6 seconds after the kick-off, per AS:
Fastest goal update. Keita's goal tonight is the fastest Liga goal ever, 7.6 seconds. Measured from kick-off NOT ref's whistle.— AS English (@English_AS) March 27, 2014
A little over a half-hour later, Eduardo Vargas doubled Valencia's lead.
Oscar Diaz halved the deficit in the 53rd minute, and two minutes later, Corona put Almeria level.
The draw drops Valencia down to ninth. They don't have a shot at fourth, and their chances for European football of any kind are quickly dwindling. Los Che are nine points behind sixth-place Sociedad.
Levante 1-3 Real Betis
One of the most surprising results of the week was Real Betis' 3-1 win over Levante. Les Granotes are usually a hard side to break down, while Betis came into the match having earned one win and three draws away from home all season.
When Pape Diop leveled the match in the 26th minute, it looked like Levante had found their footing and would constrict Betis until there was nothing left, and a goal would easily come.
Only Real Betis recovered quickly and retained their defensive solidarity. One thing they did a great job of was working the ball out wide. That allowed Betis to move quickly up the pitch and avoid the midfield morass that Levante can cause for their opposition. Javi Chica and Juan Carlos were excellent down the left flank.
Jorge Molina put Betis ahead in the 70th minute, and Ruben Castro added an insurance goal seven minutes later to seal the victory.
This may be a short-lived party for Betis, though. Even with the win, they remain seven points back of Osasuna in 17th. If one club looks sure for the drop, it's Real Betis. They'll need a Herculean effort to remain in La Liga for next season.