Barcelona, Madrid limping toward inevitable finish in Spain

·4 min read

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — While Manchester City and Arsenal are providing the English Premier League with a thrilling title fight as the season enters its final stretch, Barcelona and Real Madrid are playing like the Spanish league essentially ended a month ago.

Even with seven rounds still remaining, the outcome does seem a foregone conclusion — which perhaps explains why both teams seem to have lost their focus lately.

Barcelona and Madrid have both dropped several points in recent matches, including losses to modest rivals this week in their respective league games. That left Barcelona a healthy 11 points ahead of a Madrid side which has bigger priorities than trying to conjure up an unlikely comeback.

They will again face teams that have a lot more to play for on Saturday. Barcelona hosts a Real Betis team that is fighting to enter the top four spots that earn Champions League berths, while Madrid welcomes an Almeria that is trying to avoid relegation.

It seems that the powerhouses both decided that Barcelona’s 2-1 win in their “clasico” matchup in March had ended Madrid’s hopes of repeating as champion.

Since then, Madrid has lost two out of five games, including a 3-2 defeat at home to Villarreal and a 4-2 loss at Girona on Tuesday.

At least Madrid has a good excuse. Carlo Ancelotti’s side is clearly focused on possible cup double, including a chance to lift a 15th European Cup. Madrid will play the Copa del Rey final against Osasuna on May 6 and then the first leg of its Champions League semifinal against City three days later.

Against Almeria, Madrid will be without top midfielder Luka Modric, who is out with a left thigh injury that puts his availability for upcoming games in doubt.

Ancelotti acknowledged the motivational edge that his team’s league opponents have over his star-studded squad, whose players are likely more concerned about not picking up an injury that could knock them out of their key cup matches.

“We are playing against teams that are playing for important things, whether avoiding relegation or playing in European competitions,” Ancelotti said Friday. “The game (against Almeria) will be demanding and even more so for us after the poor showing we had at Girona. We want to play better.”

The Italian veteran said that even he sometimes lacks focus for each and every game in a packed calendar.

“It happens to me too. I am not able to prepare each game in the same way,” Ancelotti said. “There are games in which I am more concentrated in coming up with a good strategy, and others that I have difficulties because I am not as concentrated. … There are good days and bad days.”

Barcelona’s recent letdown is harder to justify. It was eliminated from the Champions League in the group phase and was beaten by Madrid in the Copa del Rey semifinals.

But with the sole goal of wrapping up what would be its first major title since 2019, and its first since Lionel Messi left in 2021, Barcelona has hit a slump.

In its last four league games, Barcelona has won just one of four games while scoring just two goals. It has been held to scoreless draws by Girona and Getafe, and after a 1-0 win over third-place Atletico Madrid, it fell to a 2-1 defeat at Rayo Vallecano on Wednesday.

After the loss to Rayo, Xavi could only admit that his team had not been up to the challenge.

“I am angry and my players are too,” he said. “We did not play a good game.”

RELEGATION SCRAP

The drama will be being played out at the bottom of the standings on Sunday.

Espanyol and Getafe, both in the relegation zone, will meet in Barcelona in a game they both desperately need to win.

Espanyol has lost seven and drawn once in its last eight games as it has tumbled into second-to-last place, five points from safety.

Getafe parted ways with coach Quique Sánchez Flores this week after only one win in seven games. It is three points ahead of Espanyol.

Also on Sunday, Cadiz hosts a Valencia side that is only one point ahead and level on points with Almeria.

Two of those five teams will likely accompany last-place Elche in joining the second division next season.

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Joseph Wilson, The Associated Press