First and simplest is Barca’s game in hand. Because of the FIFA Club World Cup, Barcelona missed a fixture against bottom-table Sporting Gijon. If the match goes as expected, those three points would make up for a defeat to Atletico.
Second, Barcelona’s underlying statistical record is just that much stronger than those of its rivals. This is not, interestingly, because Barcelona is particularly great by its own standards. The club’s expected goals ratio of 0.730 (a ratio of expected goals created to the sum of expected goals created and conceded) is, while excellent, short of the numbers most recent Barcelona sides have posted.
Certainly nothing is wrong with this Barcelona club, but its advantages in the title race have as much to do with the relative weaknesses of the Madrid sides as with Barca’s own greatness.
With Real Madrid, that weakness is defensive. While Real has conceded merely 19 goals, the underlying numbers are a bit less impressive. With 244 shots conceded, Real Madrid has allowed more shot attempts not only compared to its title rivals, but also more than midtable sides such as Eibar, Malaga and Athletic Club. And this is not about conceding low-quality shots while preventing the best scoring chances. Instead, unlike Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid’s 32 non-penalty big chances conceded places Real solidly in the middle of the pack defensively.
Atletico Madrid stands at the top of the big chances conceded table with just 15 allowed in 21 matches. Diego Simeone has once again built a dominant defensive side. But compared with his title-winning club from 2013-14, Simeone’s Atleti is not quite the efficient chance-creation machine. While Atletico remain fantastic at preventing chances, the rate of big chance creation has dipped by about 50 percent compared with 2013-14.
Atletico has not replaced Diego Costa as a true striker, with the rotating crew of Jackson Martinez, Fernando Torres and Luciano Vietto combining for a mere six goals in more than 3,000 minutes. Antoine Griezmann has been excellent, but he has been lonely in the attack — as key creator Koke is also working through a down season. Atletico Madrid has yet to fully click as an attacking side. This means that Atletico is unusually at risk of dropping points in draws when its one or two best chances are not converted.
None of these factors mean the La Liga title race has been decided. Particularly if Atleti can pull out a victory on Saturday, Barca will have ground to make up. But the underlying numbers all point in the same direction. Barcelona is the most complete side in La Liga and Luis Enrique’s club is likely to repeat as champions regardless of the result on Saturday. A victory would make any comeback from the Madrid sides extremely unlikely.
This projection places Barcelona’s chance of winning the title better than 90 percent with a victory, and Barca still win La Liga the majority of time following a loss. The race is its to lose.
All data provided by Opta unless otherwise noted.