BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Real Madrid enters the final round of the Spanish league just one point away from ending a five-year wait to reclaim the domestic crown.
Standing in its way is a Malaga side that has found its stride under former Madrid player Michel Gonzalez.
Madrid, which visits Malaga on Sunday in the last round, is three points ahead of Barcelona. But Madrid must take at least a draw at La Rosaleda Stadium as Barcelona holds the head-to-head tiebreaker if both teams end up with the same number of points.
“It’s going to be a difficult match against a rival that is playing phenomenally,” Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane said Saturday. “We haven’t won it yet. We are very motivated and won’t quit until the last minute.”
That point may be harder to come by than many Madrid fans would like as Malaga has proven to be a tough place to visit since Michel’s arrival.
Michel took charge in March with Malaga trying to avoid a relegation fight. After a settling-in period, he has led Malaga to six wins in its last eight matches. That run includes victories in its last four home matches over Barcelona, Valencia, Sevilla and Celta Vigo.
Striker Sandro Ramirez has 14 goals for Malaga, seven coming during the late-season surge.
Ignacio Camacho, a physical midfielder, holds the center, while Carlos Kameni is hard to beat in goal. However, Malaga will be without defender Diego Llorente, who is on loan from Madrid and not allowed to play.
As an attacking midfielder, Michel helped Madrid win six Ligas, and he later returned as Madrid reserve team coach. His name consistently comes up as a potential future manager of Madrid.
Despite Malaga’s recent form, some diehard Barcelona fans have concerns that Michel may not field his best side or push his players enough to beat his former club with the title on the line.
Michel is having none of that.
“A draw lets them (Madrid) become champions, but they will be facing a team that in the last 11 rounds, especially in the last eight rounds, has been playing at a great level,” Michel said Saturday. “Will Real Madrid become champion because Malaga allows it? No. The statistics and the football played say that Madrid is a great team and that Malaga is playing like one.”
Barcelona coach Luis Enrique said he believed “100 percent in the professionalism of all coaches and players.”
Barcelona hosts Eibar and must win to have any chance of the title.
“If we get lucky, fantastic. We will celebrate it,” Luis Enrique said. “If not, we will congratulate the champion.”