Atletico aiming to fend off Real as title race goes to wire

Villarreal may seem like tougher opponents on paper for Real but it is set to rest many players in preparation for the Europa League final with Manchester United.

Luis Suarez

Atletico Madrid's Luis Suarez, right, celebrates after scoring his side's second goal during a La Liga match against Osasuna.   -  AP

Atletico Madrid began its La Liga title chase with a sprint before ceding ground and almost losing its balance but it head into the deciding weekend with the finish line in sight, trying to stay ahead of a valiant but exhausted Real Madrid.

After a nerve-shredding 2-1 win over Osasuna last Sunday, when Real was top of the table for 19 minutes, Atletico head to Real Valladolid on Saturday knowing a victory will ensure it lift its first league trophy in seven years.

But any slip up could be leapt upon by city rivals Real, who is two points behind and has a better head-to-head record than Atletico, meaning it will win the title if it beat Villarreal and its neighbours fail to win.

Atletico's game at Valladolid will be anything but easy, with its opponents needing a win to stand a chance of avoiding relegation. Villarreal may seem like tougher opponents on paper for Real but it is set to rest many players in preparation for the Europa League final with Manchester United.

Atletico know the feeling of having a trophy swiped from its hands by Real all too well, after losing the 2014 Champions League final following a 93rd-minute Sergio Ramos equaliser and losing the 2016 final to its more illustrious neighbours on penalties.

History has looked like repeating itself on numerous occasions this season.

Powered by the goalscoring form of Luis Suarez, Atletico won 16 of its first 19 matches to take a 10 point lead over Real at the end of January with a game in hand.

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But it began to wobble in February, when it conceded a last-minute equaliser to draw 2-2 at home to Celta Vigo before drawing and then losing to Levante.

It was on course for a significant win over Real in the derby before an 88th-minute Karim Benzema equaliser snatched a 1-1 draw.

Defeats by Sevilla and Athletic Bilbao in April allowed Barcelona and Real to trim Atletico's advantage to two points, while Sevilla briefly turned the contest into a four-way race.

Real and Barca then both squandered chances to go top and Atletico, with the help of two late penalty misses from opponents plus Suarez's late winner against Osasuna, have weathered the storm.

Real also deserve huge credit for taking the race to the wire despite suffering more than 60 injuries throughout the season.

"It has been a very long season, it's been very tough, but we were lucky enough to make an excellent start," Atletico president Enrique Cerezo told radio station Cadena Ser.

"We then had a slump but we're in form again and hopefully we'll have some more luck and win at Valladolid."

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