Following Atletico Madrid's 2-0 loss to Levante, Barcelona are suddenly very much alive in the race for the Spanish La Liga title. A trip to Elche on Sunday is the last obstacle between the Blaugrana and a winner-take-all showdown against league-leaders Atletico.
The hosts sit three points above the relegation zone and could secure La Liga safety with a draw, but plagued by injuries and suspensions and facing a Barcelona squad with their sights set on the title, Sunday's match could be a long 90 minutes for the Franjiverdes.
Date: Sunday, May 11
Time: 6 p.m. BST/1 p.m. ET
Venue: Estadio Manuel Martinez Valero
Barcelona's title bid should have been dead in the water following their 2-2 draw against bottom feeders Getafe, but thanks to a loss from Atletico and Real Madrid's 1-1 draw Real Valladolid, the Blaugrana suddenly find themselves in excellent an position heading into the final week of La Liga play.
Real and Atletico will have an eye on the upcoming UEFA Champions League final and could choose to rest several starters in league play. Carlo Ancelotti already confirmed Cristiano Ronaldo will not play in Real's match against Celta Vigo, via Marca:
"He isn't playing tomorrow because he isn't 100% fit. I prefer not to take any risks with him, or with Pepe, Varane, Carvajal or di María, who aren't playing tomorrow either. It was a joint decision. I spoke with the doctor and we made it together."
Barcelona hold the advantage over Atletico in goal differential, so if both teams win their Week 37 matches, the showdown in the final week of competition will decide who becomes La Liga champions.
As we learned in Week 36, however, every single match needs to play, including this tie against Elche. Via WhoScored.com, the hosts will be missing several players on Sunday, as Alvaro and Edu Albacar will certainly be left out of the starting XI with injuries and Tono and Alberto Botia are suspended.
Manu Del Moral and Juventus-loanee Richmond Boakye are doubtful, but the latter is expected to return to health in time for kick-off.
In his pre-match presser, Elche manager and former Atletico assistant Fran Escriba displayed a lot of confidence in his team, even stating he felt like his team could win, but a draw would be an excellent result as well.
I am confident that we will score, but we all know that a draw would be an excellent result. If we are mathematically safe this week, it’d be great. I think, overall, Elche deserves it, everyone says we deserve to survive and we hope we achieve that.
[...]The quality of their players surprises you but we know their style by now. They will grow their game when given the ball, with a lot of players between the lines and attack with the ball. We aren’t likely to win the possession battle but we will fight back and we will focus on the set pieces which will be an important factor because that’s their weak point. The most difficult thing is to control the genius of their game.
Barcelona don't have to worry about cup finals or resting starters, and following a bad run of results and a handful of controversies, including a now-suspended transfer ban, per The Daily Mail's Pete Jenson, things are looking up for the club again.
According to L'Equipe, superstar Lionel Messi confirms he is very close to signing a new deal with the Blaugrana, via Transfer News Live:
Barcelona forward Lionel Messi says he is very close to signing a new contract with Barcelona. (Source: L'Equipe)— Transfer News Live (@DeadlineDayLive) May 9, 2014
Via WhoScored, Elche's 29 total goals in league play are tied for worst in La Liga, good news for a Barcelona squad that has been rocked by injuries on the back-end this season.
Victor Valdes and Gerard Pique will certainly miss this match, and the latter shouldn't be rushed back ahead of the vital showdown against Atletico. Elche don't pose much of a scoring threat, particularly without Boakye, so even if Carles Puyol and Marc Bartra aren't good to go, Barcelona shouldn't take any chances with Pique.
Who will win the Spanish La Liga title?
Breaking down the hosts' solid organisation on the back-end will be a far bigger challenge for the Blaugrana, but as we saw in the teams' first matchup of the season, Elche struggle against incisive passing, something Barcelona does better than arguably any other team in the world.
In truth, this match should be a good preparation for next week's match against Atletico, who are a bigger and better version of Elche on the defensive side and will challenge Barcelona in every other facet of play.
Elche will give Barcelona a chance to rest some key defenders, while the rest of the team take care of business against the Franjiverdes. There's no such thing as formalities in football, as we saw last week, but of all three title contenders, Barcelona now have the clearest path to the title.
It will most likely take two wins, and the Blaugrana are yet to beat Atletico this season, but there would be no better time to start than next week.
Regardless of what happens, fans will be treated to an epic final match day of the 2013-14 La Liga season, in what has already been one of the most exciting finishes the league has seen in years.