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Have Real Madrid and Barcelona blown it? Three nights to define La Liga title race

3:00 AM EDT 5/11/21
ronald Koeman Barcelona Diego Simeone Atletico Madrid Zinedine Zidane Real Madrid GFX
Real Madrid missed their chance to take control of the title race meaning they and Barcelona are now relying on Atletico to slip up again

There was both euphoria and deep regret for Real Madrid on Sunday night; a strange, bittersweet sensation after stumbling to a 2-2 draw with Sevilla. At once it wrenched the fate of La Liga out of their hands, and yet also ensured they are still firmly in the fight.

Eden Hazard’s accidental 95th-minute equaliser was already enough of a twist at the end of a torturous week for the Belgian forward, heavily criticised by fans and media alike after laughing with his former Chelsea team-mates in midweek.

Madrid, knocked out of the Champions League in west London, knew they had to win four from four to win La Liga, but failed at the first hurdle of their sprint finish. Last season, like a machine, they won 10 matches in a row to beat Barcelona to the title, but this year they don’t have the energy left in them.

The pause for the coronavirus allowed Zinedine Zidane’s team to find a second wind, that they badly need now. A defeat by Sevilla would have left them third and relying on both Atletico Madrid and Barcelona slipping up, but Hazard’s heel deflected in Toni Kroos’s low drive deep into stoppage time.

Not only did that goal put them back ahead of the Catalans on head-to-head, but means Madrid need Atletico to draw, instead of lose, to potentially overtake them.

Snatching a draw, then, from the jaws of victory, with La Liga left as it was before the weekend began, as the top four butted heads.

Having seen Barcelona and Atletico share a stalemate at Camp Nou, Zidane’s side spent 24 hours dreaming of going top, favourites for the title until they started to actually play.

Ronald Koeman did not push Barcelona on the attack as forcefully as he should have on Saturday, while Atletico coach Diego Simeone went all-in on the draw, banking on Real slipping up in one of their final four fixtures.

The pay-off was near immediate, Simeone’s read of the situation exquisite, unlike his team’s finishing. Atletico have 77 points, Real Madrid and Barcelona 75 each, with Los Blancos boasting a better head-to-head record than both of their competitors. Madrid spurned a 'break point' in the title race.

They were sucker-punched by Sevilla in the first half at the Alfredo di Stefano, with the Andalusians determined to stay in the hunt themselves and pressing rabidly.

Defensive midfielder Fernando Reges broke the deadlock, dancing away from his Brazilian compatriot Casemiro in the area and drilling past Thibaut Courtois.

Madrid reacted in the second half and Marco Asensio drilled the hosts level just over a minute after coming off the bench, but a clumsy handball by Eder Militao allowed Ivan Rakitic to put Sevilla back in front from the penalty spot.

Of course, it wasn’t that simple. The officials didn’t spot Militao’s offence and Karim Benzema raced through at the other end, brought down by the rash Bono in Sevilla’s box.

A penalty was awarded to Madrid, but minutes later, after VAR referral, the decision reversed, it was Rakitic standing over the ball, staring down Courtois.

The former Barcelona midfielder, with ice in his veins, stroked it into the bottom corner and left Madrid staring down the barrel of being third, with Sevilla breathing down their neck, only a point behind.

Hazard’s intervention - though it was Kroos who dragged the team to a point by the scruff of their neck - means that the league is once again finely poised, with three games remaining and three sides left with a realistic chance of winning it, not four.

“I’m very angry,” said Zidane, who confronted the officials at the end of the game. The ice-man usually refrains from speaking with or about referees but even he is feeling the heat in a relentless, error-strewn and yet utterly thrilling title race.

Having suffered around 60 injuries this season, far more than their competitors, Madrid are running on empty. Their flimsy performance against Sevilla has only increased the doubts around the champions’ capacity to defend their title.

The race whistles on, with three matches over three nights giving each of the three contenders a chance of sleeping as league leaders.

If Barcelona beat Levante on Tuesday, they will go top. Should Atletico then draw with Real Sociedad on Wednesday, they will depose the Catalans. And should Madrid then defeat Granada, they can return to the top of the table.

But until and unless that happens, Madrid will be licking their wounds as they stagger towards the finish line, mulling over what might have been.