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Barca favourites to win La Liga title race

Last updated on: April 29, 2021 12:22 IST
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Barcelona

IMAGE: Barcelona coach Ronald Koeman with Lionel Messi. Photograph: Marcelo Del Pozo/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.

Juventus and Milan campaigns in danger of falling apart

Juventus have been reigning Serie A champions for the last nine seasons and AC Milan were top of the table at the halfway stage of the current campaign, but both teams go into this weekend battling to secure a top-four finish this term.

All was looking rosy for early pacesetters Milan as they went unbeaten for the first 15 league matches of the campaign to help them be crowned 'winter champions' - a mid-season title that is taken seriously in Italy due to historic precedent.

Only twice since the league reverted to 20 teams in 2004 have the winter champions failed to finish on top -- Napoli in 2015-16 and 2017-18, but Stefano Pioli's Milan side have become another exception after falling away spectacularly.

Milan are now fifth, 13 points behind runaway leaders Inter Milan, having lost five games since claiming the winter crown, and below another of the teams who tried to launch a breakaway Super League last week - Juventus who also have 66 points.

Things have not gone to plan for rookie Juve coach Andrea Pirlo this season.

The former Juve midfielder was looking to make it 10 successive Scudettos but his team have produced a limp title defence and never looked in the running. Coupled with another early Champions League exit, the pressure is mounting on Pirlo.

Sixth-placed Lazio are five points behind Milan and Juve but have a game in hand in a tightly-contested top-four race. Just two points separate Atalanta in second and Milan in fifth.

It is perfectly feasible that Juve and Milan could miss out on the top four - Lazio have won six of their last seven league games - meaning there is no room for any further slip-ups.

Milan host third-bottom Benevento on Saturday and Juve have a trip to mid-table Udinese on Sunday. They look comfortable games on paper but both teams have dropped points to teams belwo them of late so fans will be uneasy going into the weekend.

There are no such concerns for Inter, who are heading for their first Serie A title in 11 years at a canter.

They could clinch the Scudetto this weekend if Antonio Conte's side beat lowly Crotone away on Saturday and Atalanta fail to win at Sassuolo on Sunday.

American coach Marsch to succeed Nagelsmann at RB Leipzig

RB Leipzig have named Jesse Marsch as coach from next season, replacing Julian Nagelsmann who is joining Bayern Munich, after the American agreed a two-year deal, the club said on Thursday.

The 47-year-old Marsch, who was an assistant coach at Leipzig in 2018/19, will join from sister club RB Salzburg, where he won the Austrian league and Cup double last season.

From 2015 to 2018 Marsch had coached another Red Bull-owned club, the New York Red Bulls. Marsch is also the first U.S. coach to have managed in the Champions League, with Salzburg.

"Jesse has done outstanding work everywhere he has worked so far," said Leipzig's Head of soccer Oliver Mintzlaff. "He has kept developing and it is obviously an advantage that he has worked at RB Leipzig for a year in the past.

"Jesse knows the club, the city, but most of all the philosophy of the team and the playing style," he said.

Nagelsmann this week announced his departure for Bayern at the end of the season having signed a five-year contract.

Marsch has big shoes to fill in Leipzig, with 33-year-old Nagelsmann last season having led the team to third place in the Bundesliga and the Champions League semi-finals with high-octane pressing and attacking football that has won over many fans.

They are currently second in the standings, seven points behind leaders Bayern with three games left, and can still win their first trophy, having reached the German Cup semi-finals.

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Source: REUTERS
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