Football

Published: Monday May 12, 2014 MYT 4:57:06 AM
Updated: Monday May 12, 2014 MYT 4:57:06 AM

La Liga goes down to the wire after leaders held

MADRID (Reuters) - Atletico Madrid and Barcelona will play a La Liga title decider at the Nou Camp stadium next weekend after the front runners drew on Sunday to set up one of the most dramatic finishes in Spain's top flight for more than 60 years.

On a day of nerve-jangling tension, when leaders Atletico came desperately close to a late goal that would have clinched the championship, the Madrid club had to come from behind to rescue a 1-1 draw at home to Malaga while second-placed Barca were held to a 0-0 stalemate at Elche.

Real Madrid dropped out of the title race when they suffered a surprise 2-0 loss at Celta Vigo that left them five points behind their city rivals with one game remaining.

Atletico are top on 89 points from 37 matches, with Barca on 86 and Real, who were missing key players through injury including top scorer Cristiano Ronaldo, on 84.

If Barca beat Atletico next Sunday they will be champions as they would have a better head-to-head record after the title rivals drew 0-0 at the Calderon in Madrid in January.

A draw would be enough for Atletico to secure their first domestic league title since 1996, when current coach Diego Simeone was in the team, and become the first side other than Spain's wealthy big two to win La Liga since Valencia in 2004.

The title has only twice been decided with a winner-takes-all clash on the final day and not since 1951 when Atletico pipped Sevilla.

"If they had told us at the start of the season that we would get to the final day at the Nou Camp with a three-point lead over Barca nobody would have believed it," Atletico coach Diego Simeone told a news conference.

"Now it's 50-50, like in any final," added the Argentine, whose side are also through to the Champions League final to face Real Madrid in Lisbon on May 24.

"Our rivals are used to these moments. We are humble and what this team has done is incredible, it has cost a huge amount of effort and we hope it all comes together next Sunday."

Samuel Sanchez gave Malaga a shock lead 25 minutes from time at Atletico's packed Calderon stadium, where the fans have been enjoying the club's best season in years.

Toby Alderweireld levelled for the home side in the 74th minute and Adrian came close to a winner in stoppage time but was denied by a brilliant save from Willy Caballero.

STRANGE FEELING

At Elche's Martinez Valero arena in Alicante, Barca created plenty of chances but, as so often this season, they failed to take them.

Andres Iniesta was unlucky when his superb volley rattled the crossbar in the 13th minute and Lionel Messi and Alexis Sanchez also went close against a determined Elche side, who are now free of the threat of relegation.

Barca's bid for a fifth La Liga title in six seasons remains alive despite consecutive draws as Atletico again failed to take advantage of their stumble.

"It was one of those matches when you get a strange feeling, especially after Andres's effort," Barca coach Gerardo Martino told a news conference.

"When you start missing chances so early in the game your feelings of patience start to turn into desperation," added the Argentine, who is widely expected to leave at the end of the season after a disappointing debut campaign.

"At the end we didn't know if we were taking too many risks and if a goal from them might have taken us out of the fight.

"I don't know if we were lacking anything but we did everything we could to win."

Real's faint hopes of pipping Atletico and Barca to the title were extinguished when a Charles double either side of halftime condemned them to a defeat that ended their chances of a Champions League, La Liga and King's Cup treble.

As well as Ronaldo, who was rested as a precaution, coach Carlo Ancelotti was without Gareth Bale, midfielder Angel Di Maria and defenders Pepe and Dani Carvajal and there was a sense the club were already thinking about the Champions League final.

Ancelotti said Real had lost some of their intensity since thumping Bayern Munich 5-0 on aggregate to secure their place in the final of Europe's elite club competition.

"We have lost this league and it's the first competition we have lost so we cannot be pleased," Ancelotti, whose side beat Barca to win the King's Cup last month, told a news conference.

"We have to look forward now because there is another very important game," added the Italian, also in his first season in Spain. "Now we have to look at where we went wrong and try to get our energy and the injured players back for the final.

(Editing by Ed Osmond and Ken Ferris)

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