Atletico Madrid have left the door ajar in La Liga’s title race but who steps forward first will depend on a battle of the contenders this weekend, when all of the top six face each other.
First against sixth pitches Atletico against Villarreal on Sunday night before second-placed Real Madrid host Real Sociedad in fifth. Before both of those, Barcelona travel to Sevilla on Saturday in a contest of third against fourth.
Sevilla’s seven-point cushion ahead of fifth place appears to have cast Real Sociedad and Villarreal adrift in the scrap for Champions League qualification but Julen Lopetegui’s side remain very much in the mix at the top.
Victory over Barcelona at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan will see them move one point ahead of their opponents and only four behind Atletico, whose sudden dip has given hope to those below.
Sevilla are also the form team, on a run of six consecutive league victories, the last five of those without conceding a goal.
Youssef En-Nesyri has 13 league goals for the season but even as his hot streak has tailed off in recent weeks and Luis Ocampos, one of his main suppliers, has been out injured, Sevilla have been undeterred.
Barcelona, meanwhile, were laboured in the first half against Elche on Wednesday, even if two goals from Lionel Messi sparked them into life in the second.
After drawing at home to Cadiz last weekend, the effects of their hammering by Paris Saint-Germain seem to have lingered ahead of what is now a crucial few days for the club.
Four days after facing Sevilla away, they play them again at home in the second leg of the Copa del Rey semi-final, looking to flip a 2-0 deficit and keep alive their hopes of winning a trophy this term.
Yet while the cup may be their “shortest route” according to Ronald Koeman, it may not be their only one, with only five points now the gap behind Atletico and the top of the table.
“The problem for us is the games we lost at the start of the season and we cannot lose any more,” said Koeman on Wednesday. “We have to win all the games now if we want to do something in the league.”
‘Not a crisis’
Atletico’s limp performance against Chelsea on Tuesday did little to ease concerns about a potential collapse for them, following a run of one win in five games, after nine from the previous 10.
“It’s not a crisis,” said goalkeeper Jan Oblak on Tuesday. “We have to get our heads up, we have big games in the league before the second leg and we have to improve. There is no other option.”
Diego Simeone will be grateful to have Kieran Trippier back next week, when the right-back will have completed his ban for breaking betting rules, while Villarreal have hit a sticky patch themselves, with Unai Emery under pressure after six games without a victory.
Atletico cannot afford to extend this dip further, particularly with the Madrid derby coming up next weekend, when it is possible Real Madrid could overtake them.
Zinedine Zidane’s side have mounted a mini-resurgence in recent weeks, based on a tightened defence, whose clean sheet against Atalanta on Wednesday was their fourth in a row, all of them without the injured Sergio Ramos.
“We have to keep doing what we’re doing, we don’t look at the rest,” said Zidane. “We’re on a good run and we believe in ourselves. Our defence is always important and we know the quality it has.”
Real Madrid have been depleted by injuries in recent weeks but hope to Karim Benzema back for the derby at the Wanda Metropolitano, even if Monday’s game may come too soon for him.
Real Sociedad appear to be enjoying a revival too after a run of one win in 11 between November and January dented their Champions League qualifications hopes.
But they are not out of the race yet, facing Madrid on the back of three consecutive victories.