Soccer-La Liga title race enters business end with Barca favourites

FILE PHOTO: Soccer Football - La Liga Santander - Real Betis v FC Barcelona - Estadio Benito Villamarin, Seville, Spain - February 7, 2021 Barcelona coach Ronald Koeman with Lionel Messi before he is substituted on REUTERS/Marcelo Del Pozo

MADRID (Reuters) - La Liga heads into the home stretch with one of the most exciting title races of recent times in full swing four teams battling it out to lift the trophy this season.

In an unlikely turn of events, Barcelona have emerged as favourites to be crowned champions after one defeat in their last 22 Liga games.

That run has seen Ronald Koeman's side claw back league leaders Atletico Madrid, who sit top with 73 points from 33 games, to within two points and they have a game in hand.

Barca can leapfrog Atleti for the first time this term with a victory over Granada on Thursday and put themselves in the driving seat, which seemed unlikely when Diego Simeone's side stretched their lead to 10 points at the end of January.

"We need to win because we know we can become league leaders and that'll be a prize for us," said Koeman.

"We're going game-to-game. If you look back at the season, you wouldn't have expected this. We had a large points gap and what we've done now, being in the La Liga title fight, is something big already."

After hosting eighth-placed Granada, Barca visit Koeman's former club Valencia, who are 14th, on Sunday.

Atleti, who have won two of their last five league games, will look to get back to winning ways and put pressure on their rivals when they visit third-bottom Elche on Saturday, knowing they cannot afford to drop any more points in a torrid 2021.

City neighbours and reigning champions Real Madrid are also two points behind Atletico on 71 from 33 matches.

However, they could be forgiven for being distracted when they host mid-table Osasuna on Saturday given that they will have one eye on Wednesday's Champions League semi-final second leg trip to Chelsea following a 1-1 draw in midweek.

Dark horses Sevilla, meanwhile, sit a point further back in fourth spot but, much like Barcelona, are very much in form, having lost twice in their last 16 league outings.

Julen Lopetegui's side host ninth-placed Athletic Bilbao on Monday looking to take advantage of any slip-ups from the top three that might come beforehand.

(Reporting by Joseph Walker; Editing by Ken Ferris)

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