Barcelona may have navigated their way past Real Madrid and Villarreal this week but their first ever unbeaten La Liga season is not quite over the line yet.
Ernesto Valverde’s side visit Levante on Sunday, whose lowly position of 16th betrays a late surge in form, which has included four consecutive victories and only one defeat in their last 10 games.
Barca are clear favourites. They held on for a 2-2 draw at home to Real on Sunday, even after Sergi Roberto was sent off at the end of the first half, before thrashing sixth-placed Villarreal 5-1 on Wednesday.
But if those two games have caused any fatigue, or even complacency, among Spain’s league and cup winners, Levante could be primed to take advantage.
When Paco Lopez replaced Juan Ramon Lopez Muniz as coach at the start of March, Levante had won only one of their last 22 games. Since he took charge, only Atletico Madrid have played them and tasted victory.
“It was important to change the dynamics but I don’t know what changed so much,” Lopez said. “What we have is attitude and commitment and that has been the key.” Valverde has downplayed the importance of his team finishing the campaign as invincibles but after already winning a domestic double, it would represent something of a cherry on top.
No team has ever finished a 38-game La Liga season without losing and Barca would be the first in any format since Real Madrid managed it across an 18-match schedule in 1932.
With Real standing on the brink of a third consecutive Champions League triumph, their Catalan rivals need to claim every accolade they can get.
“In this club you are expected to win everything,” Valverde said. “We have not won everything but it is also true we had difficulties at the start of the season and we have exceeded many expectations. “We had a terrible day in Rome in the Champions League and that has hung over us. But still, it has been a great season.”
Zinedine Zidane has paid lip-service to the idea of a strong finish in the league, not least to maintain momentum ahead of their season-defining Champions League final against Liverpool in Kiev. But a heavily-rotated Real side’s 3-2 defeat to Sevilla on Wednesday, when they trailed 3-0 in the 86th minute, offered a more accurate indication of the Frenchman’s priorities.
Real host Celta Vigo on Saturday, when it is almost certain that Cristiano Ronaldo, still recovering from a sprained ankle, will be absent. If Zidane recalls other key players it will be to prevent rust rather than to preserve hopes of beating Atletico Madrid to second.
Vigo’s own ambitions of sealing a place in the Europa League have extinguished but there remains a three-way battle for two spots between Villarreal, Sevilla and Getafe.
Real Betis, in fifth, cannot drop out although they could still sink to seventh, which would involve playing an awkward qualification play-off in July. They host the current incumbents Sevilla on Saturday. Getafe, meanwhile, entertain Atletico while Villarreal visit already-relegated Deportivo La Coruna. Getafe may enjoy the benefits of an under-strength Atletico team, who play Marseille in the Europa League final on Wednesday.
“I have tunnel vision, like a horse,” Atletico coach Diego Simeone said. “I have Getafe and the final. I don’t hear or see anything else.” -AFP