La Liga is going to the final day and, brilliantly, there are still three teams in it. Oh, and on that final day, two of them will meet
First Football Club Barcelona lost the league, then Club Atlético de Madrid lost the league, and then Real Madrid Club de Fútbol lost the league. In the end, none of them lost the league. Not yet, anyway. But they came pretty close. Over in Catalonia they even bade farewell to the title, only to open the front door hours later and see it still loitering on the step, hovering by the bell, ankle cocked, wondering whether or not to ring and waiting to be invited back in. Two 92nd-minute goals, one in Barcelona and one in Madrid, might just have changed everything. Or something. Or nothing. It was hard to tell, really.
One thing is for sure: La Liga is going to the final day and, brilliantly, there are still three teams in it. Oh, and on that final day, two of them will play each other.
Confused? So is everyone. So let's try to explain. This weekend something happened in Spain that had not happened for more than a year. Not since March 2013 had Barcelona, Atlético and Madrid all failed to win. On Saturday afternoon, Barcelona drew 2-2 with Getafe; on Sunday afternoon, Atlético lost 2-0 to Levante; and on Sunday night, Madrid drew 2-2 with Valencia. Seven points gone, just like that. When the final whistle went at the Santiago Bernabéu, just before 11pm, it was difficult to decide who the weekend's winners were, let alone who the season's winners would be.
In Barcelona, an injury-time header from Getafe's Angel Lafita summed up Barça's season: they had wasted chances, largely looked uninterested, ambled about a bit, conceded twice, and been caught by a simple set play. "We have made mistakes that a professional doesn't make," Sergio Busquets admitted. For Getafe, it was a massive point, putting them out of the relegation zone; for Barcelona, at least it put them out of their misery. Or so they thought. "No matter what the maths say, we have gone as far as we can but it ends here, today," the coach, Tata Martino, said, while Xavi talked about "wiping the slate clean and starting from scratch" next season. "Only a miracle can save us now and I don't believe in miracles," admitted Andrés Iniesta.
He should have listened to Errol Brown. Twenty-five hours later, it looked a little different, when Atlético lost to Levante, conceding as many in one game as they had in the previous nine put together; 31 hours later, it looked very different when Madrid drew with Valencia. For Barcelona, there must have been mixed emotions: relief that they were still in it, but kicking themselves – sideways, naturally (ba-dum, tish) – for the ridiculous way they had dropped two points. A draw seemed like an awful result, one that led to them conceding the title, but as it turned out it might have put them back in it. A victory, though, would have put the title in their own hands. Easy to say after the event, of course.
Atlético dropping points at Levante was perhaps predictable after their midweek Champions League semi-final second leg, but few expected them to actually lose against a side who may be tough but also knew they were safe. A draw for Diego Simeone's team would have meant that a win at home against Málaga next week would have made the final game irrelevant. As it is, there is all to play for. One Levante player, Rubén, did admit: "If there's a [third party] bonus for winning, then great," and drew a public reprimand from the president of the league – a man very good at saying things, but not actually very good at doing them – who reminded him that third-party bonuses are illegal.
Afterwards, David Barral, the scorer of the second goal and a former Real Madrid youth teamer, insisted: "We didn't want to screw the league up for anyone." At that stage, it felt like they had done exactly that. And yet Simeone insisted: "The defeat was the best thing that could have happened to us: we now have three weeks of high intensity and lots of emotion. That's better for men and for players."
Four hours later, Real Madrid were facing Valencia – the team with nothing to play for, who'd had a day less rest than Madrid and were emotionally in tatters after missing out on the Europa League final on away goals after conceding a 94th-minute header. Madrid's fans did not seem to think it was a big deal either; the Bernabéu was full but there was a strange, silent stillness about the place … at least there was until the dying minutes, when it was deafening. Twice Valencia took the lead; twice Madrid equalised. Cristiano Ronaldo scored a wonderful backheel volley in the 92nd minute. And there were even chances after that too.
And so it is that, with two weeks to go, according to Spain's premier football statistician Alexis Tamargo, Atlético have a 66% chance of winning the league, Barcelona have a 24% chance and Madrid have a 10% chance.
These are the basics:
At the end of week 35, the table reads:
Atlético Madrid, 88 points.
Barcelona, 85 points.
Real Madrid, 83 points (with a game hand, which they play on Wednesday night at Valladolid).
The highest totals they can reach are:
Real Madrid 92
Should teams finish level, their final position will be decided on their head-to-head records.
If it's level between Atlético and Madrid, Atlético win the league.
If it's level between Barcelona and Madrid, Barcelona win the league.
If it's level between Barcelona and Atlético, Barcelona win the league.
If it's level between all three teams, Barcelona win the league.
That's possible too. There's a reason for that. And that's the fact that their fixtures read:
Real Madrid: Valladolid away, Celta away, Espanyol home.
Atlético: Málaga at home, Barcelona away.
Barcelona: Elche away, Atlético at home.
Yes, Barcelona v Atlético. While Madrid need Atlético to falter, and Barcelona need six points of their own and for Madrid to slip, Atlético know that four will be enough to win the title. Yet that makes it sound simple, which it is not. How about this for risky: Madrid's fate is in rivals Barcelona's hands; Barcelona's fate is in rivals Madrid's hands, and probably rivals Espanyol's too; and Atlético's fate is in their own. And while that's no longer the worse place it can possibly be, as it once was, their fate is in Barcelona's hands, too: they have to get something from the Camp Nou on the final day. And that's not going to be easy.
Or is it?
What follows is based on the assumption that the three teams win their remaining games until the final day, which given what happened this weekend is starting to look like treading dangerous ground. You wouldn't trust Barcelona to win anywhere right now but if they do, the pressure builds on Atlético. Meanwhile Madrid's opponents are Valladolid, who are fighting for survival, and Celta, who are managed by Luis Enrique, the man who will take over at Barcelona next season. Could he lead them to the title before he has even joined the club?
Nonetheless, for all the risks, it's a conclusion most have reached. And if that is the case, the only way that Barcelona can finish level on points with Atlético is by beating them, and that would also secure them a better head-to-head record. But, the question then is: what does that mean to Madrid's challenge? Does that open the door for Madrid to overtake them both and take the title?
That's where the complications come in, where fans find themselves praying for their rivals to win and their team to lose. And that final fixture stares you in the face, the combinations become suspicions and the questions arise. What if … ? Neither Atlético nor Barcelona fans want to see Madrid win the league; they would rather see their final day opponents win it. And what would be the consequences of that on the pitch?
"It was an opportunity lost," Carlo Ancelotti admitted of Sunday night's draw. "But it was not so bad. A defeat was practically saying goodbye to the league but a draw means that this will go to the final day." He had a point: a defeat, barely two minutes away as the clock ran down, would have meant that three more points for Atlético – a win against Málaga – would have been enough to put them out of Madrid's reach. Instead, Atlético have to get points at the Camp Nou. And yet, just as some Madrid fans have been cheering on Barcelona, keen for them to reach the final day with something to play for, last night some Atlético fans thought it better for Madrid to equalise than to lose.
You could see their logic, too. Even if that meant it was harder for Atlético to throw off Madrid (they would need four points not just three), it might mean it would be easier to throw off Madrid and Barcelona. The theory was simple: that way Madrid could still finish ahead of Barcelona and win the league and Barcelona would do whatever they could to avoid that – even if that meant effectively "giving" their points to Atlético on the final so that it was them and not their biggest rivals who took the title.
When Atlético kicked off at 5pm, those kind of questions seemed to be irrelevant, but now they have come into focus once more. Wins at Levante and against Málaga would have tied up the title before the final day, meaning they could have travelled to Barcelona for a guard of honour, got applauded on to the pitch, lost 10-0 and still be champions. Now they will almost certainly have to get something there. Barcelona may have to as well. And 600km away, Madrid will have to get something from Espanyol, who would hate nothing more than to see Barcelona claim the title. Destinies will become entwined and hearts will race, thanks to a weekend when Spain's best sides seemed to have blown it but in fact blew it open again.
"This is fantastic," Simeone smiled after his side had lost to Levante. "This way the league's going to be much more fun."
• Another week, another outbreak of racism. This time it was during the Levante v Atlético game, when Papakouli Diop danced in front of visiting fans at full time in response to them subjecting him to monkey chants. The footage and even some of the photographs are clear, with some clearly tucking their fists into their armpits and doing ape gestures, which is depressing but which is good news too: rarely can it have been so easy to identify and ban those involved. That is what Villarreal did last week with the banana thrower – the clearest sign of progress and that maybe, at long last, the issue is being taken seriously. For Atlético and for the Federation there has probably never been a better opportunity – if that is the right word – to prove that this matters to them.
• The other battle going to the wire is the one against relegation. Almería came from behind to beat Betis 3-2 with a 94th-minute winner from Ramon Azeez, while Getafe's equaliser at Barcelona, and Osasuna's continued apparent failure to realise that they're in trouble, means that just two points separate five teams struggling to avoid the final two relegation slots, although Granada play on Monday night and Valladolid have a game in hand against Madrid on Wednesday. With Betis down, the teams above them are Valladolid , Osasuna , Getafe , Almería , Granada  and Elche .
• And Athletic Bilbao beat Rayo, securing that Champions League place. The Godfather Part II had nothing on this. If your team draw Athletic next year and you can get to San Mamés, go. Sevilla, Real Sociedad and Villarreal will take the Europa League slots.
Results: Rayo 0-3 Athletic, Barcelona 2-2 Getafe, Málaga 0-1 Elche, Osasuna 0-2 Celta, Valladolid 1-0 Espanyol, Almería 3-2 Betis, Levante 2-0 Atlético, Sevilla 0-0 Villarreal, Real Madrid 2-2 Valencia. Tonight: Real Sociedad-Granada.