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Atletico and Barcelona locked in race that everyone has tried to lose

WHAT an extraordinary few weeks for Spanish football.

Carles Puyol at his farewell press conference yesterday. He has collected 21 trophies for Barcelona and more than 100 caps for Spain. Picture: Alejandro Garcia/EPA
Carles Puyol at his farewell press conference yesterday. He has collected 21 trophies for Barcelona and more than 100 caps for Spain. Picture: Alejandro Garcia/EPA

Three matches to decide three trophies. Sevilla have won the Europa League; Atletico Madrid will contest the Champions League with city rivals Real; and Barcelona welcome Atletico to Camp Nou tomorrow for the Primera Division's first head-to-head title decider in more than 60 years.

It is the league that nobody wants to win. Before the third-last match day of this season, more than a year had passed since all three of the title contenders had dropped points in the same round of games. It then happened twice in two weeks.

Real's failure to defeat Valladolid and Valencia has left them out of contention; on the plus side, Carlo Ancelotti is able to rest players for an assault on the decima, their 10th European title, hoping Atletico run themselves ragged this weekend, energy spent ahead of Lisbon.

And so there are two. Barcelona need to win tomorrow to secure a fifth league title in six seasons; victory would take them level on points with Atletico but with a better head-to-head record after the sides' 0-0 draw in January.

Camp Nou, according to midfielder Xavi Hernandez, has to be "a pressure cooker" for Atletico. Only 400 tickets have been allocated to the Madrid side for away fans. Preparations are frantic, tense.

There was still time, yesterday, to bid farewell to a loyal servant. Carles Puyol will leave the club after 15 seasons of long-haired, full-bodied enthusiasm in the first team. "I am a man of few words," said the club captain. "This is a very difficult moment but I will try to enjoy it. I've done what I've always wanted to do and been very happy.

"I've lived the dream of thousands of children. I came here as a child and I leave with a family."

Barcelona, without Puyol, with an old, creaking Xavi as the slowing heartbeat of the team, bear all the signs of a side in decline. The club has been bedevilled by institutional problems all season, including the resignation of its president, Sandro Rosell, over false accounting in the transfer from Santos of Neymar Jr, who, incidentally, is struggling to be fit for the showdown.

As ever, much will hinge on the out-of-sorts Lionel Messi. When the contenders met in the second leg of their Champions League tie last month, only the teams' goalkeepers ran fewer kilometres than the Argentine. Even with half-an-eye cocked on the World Cup, though, with 41 goals scored in 43 games - in what most have called a poor season - he remains a threat.

Significantly, Diego Costa has been passed fit to play for Atletico after sitting out last weekend's 1-1 draw against Malaga. No other player embodies the team's fighting spirit as much as the Brazilian-turned-Spaniard. "He is contagious," reckons the club's manager Diego Simeone, who does a good line in infectious enthusiasm, too.

When Simeone took over, Atletico were in disarray, languishing four points from the relegation zone. Alabacete, a minnow of the third division, had just knocked them out of the Copa del Rey.

The Uruguayan internationalist Diego Godin, who marshals the team's defence, filed a claim for unpaid wages. Personnel came and went like visitors to a fairground. Atletico had been averaging 14 new players a season for over a decade.

Simeone, the 49th manager appointed since 1987, chose men in his likeness. He rallied a squad of journeymen, reflecting recently: "Everyone wanted to get rid of Tiago. Arda Turan didn't realise he was allowed to run backwards as well as forward. Juanfran wasn't a fixture at fullback. Miranda wasn't in the team. Diego Godin wasn't what he is. Felipe Luis didn't play."

All six will likely start tomorrow. In five encounters this season between the two sides, four ended in ties. Atletico, with their thinner resources - a budget less than a quarter of Barcelona's - and a squad that contains six of the 10 most used players in the league, will gladly take another dull draw.

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