Atletico, Barcelona save La Liga dramatics for Camp Nou showdown

Atletico Madrid's David Villa and Barcelona's Cesc Fabregas react after their respective sides failed to win on Sunday.

CESAR MANSO/AFP/Getty Images

MADRID —

The 90 minutes were already over when Atletico Madrid substitute Adrian Lopez picked up the ball just on the edge of the Malaga penalty area during Sunday’s La Liga clash. Adrian ducked inside his marker, moved the ball onto his favored right foot, and curled a shot towards the far top corner.

55,000 home fans inside the Estadio Vicente Calderon, and millions of Atletico and Barcelona supporters watching elsewhere, held their breaths as the ball seemed set for the net. But Malaga keeper Willy Caballero stretched out a hand and diverted it over the crossbar and out for a corner, which his side cleared. Referee Jose Antonio Teixeira Vitienes blew his whistle, the game ended 1-1, and probably the most exciting La Liga title race in recent memory will now head to the final weekend.

Next Saturday will see second placed Barcelona host still leaders Atletico in a make or break last day meeting. It should not have really come to this but both sides — and even worse Real Madrid — have lost form just at the crucial moment. The three title challengers have now gone seven games without any of them winning — after Barca drew 0-0 at Elche on Sunday, and Madrid were beaten 2-0 at Celta Vigo.

Two hours before Adrian took aim the mood was party-like around the Calderon, as a full house ramped up the noise during the opening stages. Diego Simeone’s pumped up side began by forcing a series of corners and free-kicks which almost brought an opener, but Malaga fullback Vitorino Antunes denied the late arriving Tiago Mendes five minutes in.

DRAWING UP CONCLUSIONS

A much clearer chance arrived near the quarter-hour mark, when veteran striker David Villa was sent clean through by Raul Garcia’s flick-on, only for the former Barca player’s hurried shot to hit the crossbar and rebound to safety. Elsewhere radios, and tweets, reported that Villa’s former club mate Andres Iniesta had also just hit the woodwork at Elche — where Barca were struggling to regain their form after Atletico’s slip at Levante a week ago had let them back into the title race.

With 30 minutes gone there were still no goals at the Calderon. Elche’s Estadio Martinez Valero or Vigo’s Balaidos —  Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti fielded a weakened side perhaps throwing in the towel to concentrate on their upcoming UEFA Champions League final clash with Atletico on May 24 in Lisbon.

At the Calderon, there were rumors of Madrid’s Isco and Barca’s Lionel Messi going close to opening the scoring for their sides, and groans when Atletico midfielder Koke skewed wide from just eight yards and fell to the turf with his head in his hands. As the pressure rose again the home fans chanted "Now Atleti, Now Atleti," the first goal came elsewhere, with Celta striker Charles scoring to put Madrid behind.

Into the second half, Atletico kept pushing for a breakthrough. The home fans were on their feet clapping, chanting, singing, urging their men forward. Simeone added to the momentum by making attacking substitution after attacking substitution. Even the news from Vigo that Charles had made it 2-0 to end Madrid’s faint hopes of a turnaround was mostly ignored as everyone focused on trying to suck the ball into the net behind Caballero.

But the locals paid for that attitude when Malaga youngster Samuel Garcia took advantage of some lax defending to lift the ball over a stranded Thibaut Courtois and then calmly prod it to the net. The visiting players celebrated in a ground stunned to silence.

Atletico were not about to lie down however — and Simeone kept screaming his men forward. Substitute Adrian’s point-blank effort was pushed over by Cabellero, and the resulting corner was headed to the net by Belgian defender Toby Alderweireld for 1-1. And possible title win back on.

Those following events at Elche knew a lagging Barca seemed unlikely to score, so one goal would have meant a first championship since 1995-96 for Atletico. Malaga’s players tried to waste time as they clung to the point which ensured their survival for another Primera Division season. Visiting defender Marcos Angeleri was sent from the field for illegally halting another Atletico attack.

The closing stages brought chance after chance against the 10 men; Jose Sosa’s 20 yard free kick landed on the roof of the net; Villa saw a desperate effort blocked; and then Adrian found that bit of space inside the area and time seemed to slow right down as the ball arced towards the top corner only for Caballero’s hand to intervene.

That save, and the final whistle on Barca’s 0-0 at Elche, brought everyone’s attention to next Saturday’s game at the Camp Nou. Atletico know that even a draw will bring that so long awaited title. Barca need to somehow find their form to get the win it needs to take the trophy on head-to-head record. The drama in Spain’s title race has 90 minutes yet to run.