Real Madrid may or may not finally achieve their ambition of winning La Decima—their 10th European Cup—this season. Arguably, however, this obsession has cost them the La Liga crown.
Following their superb demolition job on Bayern Munich in the second leg of the Champions League semi-finals, Los Blancos have managed to accrue just two points from a possible nine, a sure sign that the club, certainly where the league is concerned, has lost its focus.
Victory against a Celta Vigo side, with nothing other than personal pride to play for, would have placed them second in the table and still in with a chance of the title.
But the signs were there, even before kick-off, when Carlo Ancelotti’s team sheet revealed no Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema or Angel di Maria (and they could have played) as well as the inclusion of Alvaro Arbeloa, just back from a long absence, and Sami Khedira, who has been out injured for the past six months.
Muscle pain, twinges, aches, pains and niggly injuries are everywhere, although everything will be forgotten if it’s alright on the night in Lisbon on May 24, of course.
However, if they fall at the final hurdle and Real Madrid finish with just the Copa del Rey in their trophy cabinet this season, it could make for an interesting summer.
In fact, some rumours in Madrid suggest Ancelotti could be sacked. That would be outrageous as he has done a good job with a side that lacks specific midfielders (only Xabi Alonso has played in his natural position, along with Asier Illarramendi, but he has not shown enough mental strength for this team yet).
Ancelotti has improved Di Maria in the midfield position he has been forced to play. Isco is a better forward than he is a midfielder, but he has added to the side even though he is still a defensive liability. And Luka Modric has been one of the players of the season, again out of position.
A Real Madrid team that naturally gets parted in two has shown against Bayern that they can reach big highs. But in the league, Ancelotti's choices have not been the best (playing Arbeloa and Khedira suggested they did not believe in their chances in the league when a victory at Celta would have placed them second).
Across the other side of town, Atletico continue to make hard work of wrapping up a title they should already have in the bag, and their failure to beat Malaga at home means they have managed just one point from what looked to be two very winnable matches.
To add insult to injury, they also know that, with Barcelona failing to win at Elche, victory would have been enough to guarantee they would be clapped on to the Camp Nou pitch next weekend as league champions.
Atletico Madrid’s problem is not a physical one, but rather one of creativity. And mental tension. Diego Simeone’s team is one that depends on set pieces and counter-attacks.
When he wants to motivate his players, he shows them DVDs of the squad as they were in pre-season training and as they are now to emphasise just how much they have progressed.
Unfortunately, when they come up against a well-marshalled, organised defensive formation, it has become apparent that they lack that certain something to unlock sides at times, especially when Diego Costa is absent.
They have worked very hard, but their lack of quality in the last third has left them on the verge of not winning the league.
This has been exposed in their last two matches, although importantly the self-belief remains. They now go to the Camp Nou for a match that will decide the destination of the title, knowing that a draw will be enough to earn them the La Liga crown, and I see them as favourites to do it.
It’s been a very strange week at Barcelona with preparation hardly conducive to that of a side who are just 90 minutes away from winning the league.
On Monday, the director of football met Luis Enrique. A midweek barbecue as an unofficial sending off to Tata Martino, a Thursday night out for the squad, a Friday off, plus the organisation of an institutional farewell to Carles Puyol when they should be focusing solely on winning the league have created an unreal atmosphere.
Everything about the week suggested that, as far as they were concerned, the league was over and their minds were elsewhere.
I’m fairly sure that as far as Martino goes, his team was at its lowest ebb, and he was looking to relax them while simultaneously hoping for a moment of individual brilliance against Elche.
Needless to say, he didn’t get it, and what we saw yet again was another poor performance, with lots of possession around the penalty area of an Elche side defending for their lives, and very few chances.
Even then the home side could have stolen it with one of the few chances they had and handed the title to Atletico.
The real shame, however, is that we have a side brimming with talent here, but it is not being used properly. Barcelona are where they are simply because the players they have are very good.
In truth, with a better organisation, they would have walked away with the title. And it hurts to see so much talent wasted for the lack of proper work from the bench.
Instead, what you have is a team that is not working as a unit and too dependent on individuals, and that is a policy that will take you so far, but no further.
Atletico, to their credit, have at least maximised their potential, which, in football, is just about one of the most pleasing things you can ever see.
*All information sourced first-hand.
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