La Liga 2013/14 will be decided between Barça and Atlético Madrid next Saturday evening at Camp Nou after the three top teams all failed to win for the second consecutive week. Real Madrid are definitely out of the title race after losing to Luis Enrique’s Celta but neither Barça nor Atlético could take full advantage of their rivals’ slips with Barça held 0-0 at Elche and Atlético missing the chance to take the title with a 1-1 draw at home to Malaga.
Barça had already been offered a lifeline by the results of the last week and the team began seriously and quickly took control of possession. Martino had brought in Cesc Fabregas in place of Xavi in midfield and early on the Barça number four was busy combining with Alves and Alexis on the right. However, it was difficult to break down Elche’s defensive 4-5-1 and with a lack of players in the penalty area the crosses had little chance of finding a target.
Things might have been different if Andres Iniesta’s 13th minute volley from the edge of the area had found the net instead of being touched onto the bar by Elche’s keeper Manu Herrera. But Elche held firm after the let-off and Barça struggled to find a way through. A good run from Fabregas and a neat back-heel from Alves ended with Fabregas getting crowded out by the packed defence.
There was little seen from Elche in attack, the best chance for the home team came in the 24th minute when Damian Suarez’s cross clipped off the top of Mascherano’s head but Rodrigues sent his volley well wide. Barça responded with a run and shot from Messi that Herrera blocked. Then a corner from the right found Alexis but his header went straight at the keeper.
Barça hit their best spell of the game but it wasn’t enough. Messi had another effort deflected wide, Alexis crossed and found a target in Pedro but his header flew past the post, then Messi curled a free kick from the right that nearly fooled Herrera but the keeper reacted late with an excellent save. As the first half came to an end an Alexis 25-yarder forced another stop from Herrera and Pedro fired disappointingly over after a good run from Messi.
The second half began with Barça again taking control but possibly the best chance of the game came after Elche tried a quick counter-attack, Alves was back in the right place to intercept a forward pass and he quickly sent the ball back over the advanced Elche defence giving Messi a run at goal. The last defender Pelegrin managed to force Messi a bit wide and when the Argentinian cut inside the defender Herrera was quickly off his line to block the shot.
Elche began to find more opportunities to break but Javi Marquez and Rodrigues both fired off target while at the other end Messi had two headers after crosses from Adriano and Pedro but neither tested Herrera. News came in that Malaga had taken the lead at the Calderón but nerves were creeping in with Pinto coming out of his area to intercept an attack and then going on a dribble. And soon after Mascherano had to be alert to cut out Coro’s cross.
In the 68th minute Pedro sent in a dangerous low cross but Alves failed to make contact with his attempted flick, and soon after Martino made his first substitution putting on Tello in place of Pedro. In his first action Tello’s cross appeared to hit the arm of the sliding Damian Suarez but referee Fernando Teixera Vitienes waved away Barça’s protests.
More news came in from the Calderón as Atlético equalized so the need for a Barça goal increased. However, Barça had little more to give and Elche nearly took advantage when substitute Boakye turned Mascherano but after a good run he passed to Rodrigues who blazed his shot well over.
Xavi finally replaced the tiring Fabregas with ten minutes remaining but there was little he could do to change things. Adriano tried his luck from 25 yards but the ball didn’t quite curl enough and went narrowly wide. Then in injury time Messi sent a free-kick straight at the goalkeeper. The game ended goalless after three minutes of injury time but the action continued at the Calderón where five minutes had been signalled. A goal now for Atlético now would have won them the title and it nearly came in the 94th minute from Adrian Lopez but Malaga keeper Willy Caballero made a splendid save which keeps Barça’s title hopes alive to the end.
So it all comes down to Barça-Atletico next Saturday at Camp Nou. A win and we are champions, anything less and Simeone’s men will claim the crown. I have no doubt that most neutrals will be supporting Atlético and there may well be the feeling that they deserve it more than we do. I’d say for now both teams are where they deserve to be: Atlético deserve to be in Lisbon as they beat us fair and square in the Champions League, and tonight they also deserve their three-point advantage at the top of La Liga – however, to win the title now they will have to prove they deserve it next week.
In a situation like this you would normally expect there to be more pressure on Barça. However, having missed out now on a couple of match balls the pressure of failure is growing for Atletico. This has been such a crazy league and Barça keep getting handed these lifelines. Ninety minutes remain on our own pitch. Can we pull it off and steal the race at the post?
Elche: Manu Herrera; Damien Suarez, Lomban, Pelegrin, Cisma; Carlos Sanchez, Ruben Perez; Carles Gil (Boakye m78), Javi Marquez (Rivera m75), Garay Rodrigues; Coro (Fidel m89).
Barça: Pinto 6; Alves 7, Bartra 6.5, Mascherano 6, Adriano 6; Fabregas 6 (Xavi m81, 6), Busquets 6, Iniesta 6; Alexis 6.5, Messi 6, Pedro 5.5 (Tello m68, 6).
Yellow cards: m28 Pelegrin, m42 Cisma, m50 Alexis, m55 Mascherano, m62 Pedro, m65 Ruben Perez.