It’s rare that people talk about anything other than a two horse race when discussing La Liga.
Such is the dominance of Real Madrid and Barcelona that it’s difficult to think of the last time the duopoly was broken.
For those of you who can’t remember, it was when Rafa Benitez’s Valencia pipped a Carlos Queiroz-led Real Madrid to the post in 2004.
To say that things have been a little staid since then would be an understatement; not only have one of the two giants claimed the title in each of the nine seasons since then, only once has another team crept in to even claim second place (Villarreal finishing as runners-up in 2008, sandwiched between champions Real and third-placed Barca).
So, as we enter the nitty gritty of March, it’s refreshing to see Diego Simeone’s impressive Atlético Madrid side still in the hunt ahead of this weekend’s crucial Madrid derby at the Vicente Calderón.
An Atlético victory would see them draw level with Carlo Ancelotti’s men at the summit but their title push is very much on the ropes after a difficult month.
A resounding 4-0 home win over Real Sociedad on 2nd February took Atlético to the top of the table for the first time since their title triumph in 1996 and was a fitting way to pay tribute to club legend Luis Aragonés, who had passed away the day before.
However, since then, the wheels have come off and Atlético have faltered. Two comprehensive defeats to Real in the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey shook their confidence, while they dropped crucial points in La Liga with unexpected defeats at Almería and Osasuna.
Over at the Bernabéu, though, things couldn’t be much better as the Real juggernaut rumbles on. They are undefeated in 27 games in all competitions and come into the derby fresh from an emphatic 6-1 victory away at Schalke in their midweek Champions League tie.
Cristiano Ronaldo is back after his suspension, while Gareth Bale has settled in remarkably well and is in scintillating form. Their confidence couldn’t be higher and Carlo Ancelotti will be well aware that a win could deal Atlético’s title challenge a knock-out blow, leaving them trailing by six points.
Atletico’s ability to keep pace with the frontrunners for so long has rightly won Simeone many plaudits over the course of the season but their lack of squad depth is starting to show.
Their performance in last week’s 3-0 defeat to Osasuna was extremely lethargic and they lacked their usual intensity. Simeone’s preference for a settled starting XI, coupled with their extended domestic and European cup runs have seen his options stretched and some players look to be running on empty.
So, while logic suggests that Atlético’s title hopes are fading fast, they go into this game as underdogs, with the weight of expectation removed, which will suit them perfectly.
They’ve finally lost their inferiority complex and their Copa del Rey victory last season, as well as September’s 1-0 win at the Bernabéu, show that they are more than a match for their cross-city rivals and they will be quietly confident of springing another surprise.