Hay Liga? Atletico Madrid asked, and Lionel Messi answered

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<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/soccer/players/lionel-messi/" data-ylk="slk:Lionel Messi">Lionel Messi</a> bent a free kick over the Atletico Madrid wall to send <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/soccer/teams/barcelona/" data-ylk="slk:Barcelona">Barcelona</a> eight points clear in La Liga. (Getty)
Lionel Messi bent a free kick over the Atletico Madrid wall to send Barcelona eight points clear in La Liga. (Getty)

In Spain, they ask the question with two simple words: ¿Hay Liga?

It translates literally to, “Is there a league?” It translates functionally to, “Is there a legitimate title race in La Liga?”

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And after Barcelona dropped two more points on Thursday, its fifth and sixth in five league games since the start of February, that was the question on the tips of tongues throughout Spain, from the capital to Catalonia. Barca’s advantage had been slashed to five. When Atletico Madrid traveled to the Camp Nou on Sunday, it threatened to slash the gap to two.

It threatened to turn question into statement. No punctuation marks necessary. Answer affirmative.

As is so often the case, though, soccer’s most pressing question was answered by soccer’s most transcendent talent. It was answered by Lionel Messi with one rhythmic sweep of his magical left boot.

The answer flew over Atletico Madrid’s wall, past its goalkeeper – La Liga’s best – and into the top corner with comforting beauty. It was Messi’s 600th career goal for club and country. It was the only one of Sunday’s highly-anticipated showdown. It won three points, and likely the league title as well.

To be fair to the collective, the question was answered not solely by Messi, but by a Barcelona team that rose to the occasion. It clamped down on Antoine Griezmann, scorer of seven goals in his previous two games. Sergio Busquets, without a true defensive midfield partner, controlled the center of the park. Philippe Coutinho showcased the new dimension he’ll bring to the Blaugrana, connecting with Luis Suarez and testing Jan Oblak.

Andres Iniesta was forced off by injury after a half-hour, and with Andre Gomes on in his stead, Barca wobbled after halftime. Possession chains began to fracture. Both tension and pressured heightened. Barcelona’s imperfections, of which there are many, began to show, and offered constant reminders of why the question – ¿Hay Liga? – was being asked in the first place.

For months, no había Liga. There wasn’t even any need to ask. Instead, there was a two-horse race that had been whittled down to one by Barcelona’s December Clasico drubbing of Real Madrid. Barca’s victory took it 14 points clear of the reigning champions, and nine points clear of second-place Atletico, which had lost to Espanyol less than 24 hours earlier.

Atletico, however, began rolling in 2018. It had won eight and drawn one in nine matches since calendars turned. Its previously inconsistent attack, the chief cause of six early-season draws, had been firing. Barcelona’s unbeaten campaign, which remains ongoing, overshadowed the fact that Atleti had lost just once.

That fact allowed Diego Simeone’s men to pose the question. And they followed up on it with relentless pressure on Sunday, pushing Barcelona both literally and figuratively. Their pressure nearly paid off in the 86th minute, with Kevin Gameiro lashing a half-volley past Marc-Andre ter Stegen. But the would-be equalizer was ruled out for offside.

In the end, the sparring offered no definitive conclusion. The question, therefore, morphed into a second one: “¿Quién tiene Messi?

The answer, of course, was Barcelona. Messi, of course, was the difference.

“If Messi had been wearing an Atletico shirt, we would have won,” Simeone said afterward.

Messi, though, as always, was wearing blue and garnet, and the answer to the original question, therefore, is no. At least not for now. With 11 matches to play, and eight points separating leader and challenger, no hay Liga.

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer, and occasionally other ball games, for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.

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