MADRID: Barcelona hold the slightest of advantages in a thrilling three-way La Liga title race with just three games remaining ahead of their trip to Real Betis on Saturday (Sunday in Manila).
The Catalans lead Atletico Madrid solely thanks to their better head-to-head record with Real Madrid just a point behind the leaders in third.
However, Barca’s chances of retaining their title could be boosted by Atletico and Real’s European commitments as their respective clashes with Rayo Vallecano and Real Sociedad are sandwiched between the two legs of their Champions League semifinals.
Atletico and Real remained on course for a second Madrid derby final in three years in midweek as Atletico will travel to Germany with a 1-0 lead over Bayern Munich, while Real host Manchester City at the Santiago Bernabeu with the scores level at 0-0.
By contrast, Barca have enjoyed just their second free midweek of 2016 and appear to have turned the corner with 14 goals without reply against Deportivo la Coruna and Sporting Gijon in their last two outings after a run of three straight league defeats.
“There are people who say it is better to play every three days to not lose the rhythm of competition, others say it is better to rest, but the most important thing is winning,” Barca defender Gerard Pique said on Thursday.
“We need to win the three games that are left to win La Liga and then the Cup finals.
“It is in our hands which is the most important thing. If we win the three games we will be champions.”
Luis Suarez scored four times in each of Barca’s last two games to streak three ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo in the race to be the league’s top scorer.
The Uruguayan is well set to win at least that personal duel as Ronaldo is expected to miss a third straight game with a thigh injury as Real travel to San Sebastian.
Karim Benzema will join the three-time World Player of the Year on the sidelines after he picked up a hamstring injury in the first leg at City.
In their absence Gareth Bale will be charged with leading the Madrid attack as he did with a double when they came from 2-0 down to register a ninth straight La Liga win at Rayo Vallecano last weekend.
And Real coach Zinedine Zidane refused to accept he will prioritize the upcoming second leg with City ahead of their trip to Anoeta.
“It is another final. From here until the end of the season we only have finals remaining,” he told Madrid’s website.
“We have not had much time to prepare, but we know that. We have to play every three days and it is both a difficult stadium and a difficult team to play against.”
Atletico look to have the easiest task of the three title contenders on Saturday when they welcome struggling Rayo to the Vicente Calderon in a Madrid derby.
Coach Diego Simeone has resisted the temptation to rotate his squad in recent weeks, but may have one eye on the return in Munich on Tuesday with only six days separating the two legs.
Defender Diego Godin and winger Yannick Carrasco are both expected to miss out through injury with Atletico hopeful both will be fit in time to face Bayern.