Title a three-horse race

Posted by Dermot Ledwith

Alexis Sanchez nets Barcelona's winner.GettyImagesAlexis Sanchez nets Barcelona's winner.

After the euphoria of winning the clasico last weekend, it was time for the annual home win over city neighbours Espanyol on Friday night. And while the 1-0 win came by the narrowest of margins, Barca were rarely in trouble.

The rest of the weekend in La Liga produced little change at the top of the table. On Saturday, Real Madrid bounced back from the loss in Camp Nou with a second win in four days, 3-2 at Rayo Vallecano, while Atletico Madrid continued their brilliant start to the season beating Athletic Bilbao 2-0 to remain just a point behind Barca in second.

While Barca have made an almost perfect start -- a 0-0 draw two weeks ago at Osasuna being the only time a win was not achieved in 12 outings -- with the La Liga season almost a third over it is looking more and more like a three horse race.

Atletico remain five points ahead of city rivals Real and need to be considered Barca's greatest rival at the moment even if the bookmakers do not agree. You could still multiply your money by eight if you fancied Atletico for the title, with Real favoured as Barca's biggest rivals despite the points difference.

Since Valencia won the league in 2004, only Villarreal have managed to break up the duopoly of the big two by finishing second to Barca in 2008. This season however Atletico look much stronger than last, while the rest of La Liga is weaker from a drain of top Spanish talent.

Atletico have an almost identical record to Barca, only a 1-0 defeat at Espanyol two weekends ago means they are a point behind the Blaugrana. With two games to come against Barca it would be foolish to underestimate the side from the south of Madrid and the league could be set to go down to the wire.

If Atletico can stay on Barca's tail until the New Year, and there is little reason why they should drop more than three points, the two sides will face each other on January 11 in the Vicente Calderon. This is the last match of the first half of the league, game 19, which means the last game of the season will be the same fixture, Barcelona at home to Atletico Madrid in Camp Nou.

The ease with which Atletico beat a strong Athletic Bilbao side on Sunday indicates they will not suffer on too many occasions against the rest of the league. Athletic were themselves looking to move into fourth and a Champions League position but were instead denied a shot on goal by an outstanding Atletico performance.

Atletico's advantage over Real Madrid comes from a spectacular 1-0 victory in the Bernabeu and it looks like this league will rest more than ever on results between the top sides.

The signs of how good Atletico's season was to become were there to see in the two battling draws they played with Barca in the Spanish Super Cup in the opening weeks.

Defensively Atletico have conceded just one goal more than Barca, eight in 12 games, and their perfect record in Champions League mean they will soon be able to take their foot of the gas and still comfortably qualify for the last 16 in that competition.

With David Villa back to his goal scoring best (hitting four in the last week) and Diego Costa challenging Cristiano Ronaldo at the top of the goalscoring charts -- both have 13 strikes with Lionel Messi behind on eight -- Atletico have the strike power to keep this up.

Barca have some tough duels coming up before that trip to the Calderon, away in Bilbao and Getafe, never an easy trip for the Catalans, in December.

Of course this is without discounting the challenge of Real Madrid. Los Blancos hit 10 goals in two games after the misfiring performance at Camp Nou, and a new three pronged attack of Bale, Benzema and Ronaldo will help them improve as the season goes on.

As always, the trip to the Santiago Bernabeu will be key for Barca at the end of March, but don't discount Atletico, there is powerful evidence to show that this season's La Liga really is a three-horse race.

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