It was an unusual way of putting it, but Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone knew he was right, and that’s what made it hurt.
Was it happening again? Could the club that has lost three European Cups in a combined total of less than three minutes, two of them under Simeone’s management, be about to lose a league title in catastrophic fashion as well? Worse things have been seen, but not much worse.
When Atletico beat Cadiz 4-2 on Jan. 31, the title race seemed done. January closed with Atletico 10 points clear at the top — and with a game in hand. They’d reached 50 points and were well on course for 100. For context, Madrid and Barcelona were on course for 76.
“We have to be realistic,” Barca manager Ronald Koeman admitted. “We’re not in a position to win much.” Meanwhile, Zinedine Zidane’s assistant at Real Madrid, David Bettoni, insisted: “Madrid’s fans still believe in the team, because its DNA is to fight until the end.” But that sounded like a question of pride, not points and the end, Bettoni knew, was nigh.
It was over. Only, it wasn’t over.
February changed everything. Atletico dropped as many points in 12 days as they had previously dropped all season. From 50 of a possible 57 to just five over their past four games. In eight games, 11 points slipped away after they had dropped just 17 in 19 matches prior. They hit the bar, the post, the goalkeeper and missed sitters, but they just didn’t find a way through like they had before. Fear visited them again; pressure came, fatalism. The games in hand — the points of which were inevitably tallied in advance, as if they didn’t even have to be played — were used up, those extra lives gone.
At Barcelona and Madrid meanwhile, something moved. Slowly at first, but with each passing game, they picked up speed. It wasn’t always pretty, but the points were there. At the end of a 1-0 win at Real Valladolid, Madrid’s Lucas Vazquez went around telling his teammates how important that result was. Madrid had held in there, they had been let off often, and now there was a chance. Somehow.
The margins could be fine. Take week 27. Two brilliant shots late on: one from Karim Benzema, one from Luis Suarez; one hits the post and goes in, one hits the post and goes out. Benzema scores against Elche, Suarez doesn’t against Getafe, leaving Madrid just six points behind Atletico. Game on. Turn it around and Atletico would be 10 points ahead of Madrid. Game off.
It was a recurring theme, a third late rescue mission in a row for Madrid: Real Sociedad (89th-minute equaliser), Atletico (88th-minute equaliser), and Elche (92nd-minute winner). As for Barcelona, they’re unbeaten in their last 19 games. Unconvincing at first, they’re flying now and are without a doubt the best team in Spain. The only doubt is whether they have left it too late, whether Atletico can hang on to what they have.
The derby had done the most damage to the league leaders, an opportunity for Atletico to effectively remove their rivals only for Benzema to get that late equaliser. But it wasn’t the only one: Celta had equalised in the 89th minute. Looking for a last-minute equaliser against Levante, they had left an open goal and conceded instead. It cuts both ways, of course: last weekend, Alaves might have done the same, only for Atletico’s Jan Oblak to save a late penalty; vulnerability revealed and nerves there for all to see, but this time, disaster averted.
“A championship save,” one front-page headline called it. It was “half the title,” the paper said inside. So many moments have been “half a title” that there must be dozens of them due to be handed out when La Liga concludes at the end of May.
There is just one, which is more than many had thought. La Liga is there to be fought for. It had been over, done. And then, the headlines suddenly ran: THE LEAGUE CATCHES FIRE. HOT LEAGUE. THE LEAGUE BURNS. And the favourite: Hay Liga! There is a league. Game on, which didn’t always seem likely. Atletico were too good. Madrid and Barcelona were too bad. No more.
And so here we are.
Atletico are still to play Sevilla (away), Real Betis (away), Huesca (home), Athletic Bilbao (away), Eibar (home), Elche (away), BARCELONA (away), Real Sociedad (home), Osasuna home) and Real Valladolid (away).
Meanwhile, Barcelona have games against: Real Valladolid (home), REAL MADRID (away), Getafe (home), Villarreal (away), Granada (home), Valencia (away), ATLETICO MADRID (home), Levante (away), Celta Vigo (home) and Eibar (away).
Lastly, Madrid meet: Eibar (home), Barcelona (home), Cadiz (away), Real Betis (home), Getafe (away), Osasuna (home), Sevilla (home), Granada (away), Athletic Bilbao (away) and Villarreal (home).
They don’t start on the same line, though. Atletico are top, where they have been for 15 weeks, sitting on 66 points. Barcelona are second, four points behind on 62, while Madrid are third, six points behind on 60. (But with a better, and now unassailable, head-to-head record).
ESPN FC’s Julien Laurens handicaps Barcelona’s chances for winning La Liga.
“We have two huge teams behind us who won’t lose any games,” Simeone says. Which can’t be quite right — unless he’s sure that his side won’t beat Barcelona and that the Clasico will be a draw — but which tells you something about the pressure they’re under, the mindset they must adopt. There’s no room for half-measures, no place for mistakes, or relaxing. Atletico have not had an easy game since Cadiz, every exhausting, tense week yields a coronary; now they have to get through them come what may. No excuses, no way out, no easy ride.
Atletico’s position is the best, but it is by no means secure. They would have signed up for this at the start of the season, if not halfway through it, and they can lose still; the other team can’t. Koeman has neatly urged caution by saying: “the sun’s shining today, but it could rain tomorrow.” And yet it’s hard to avoid the feeling that Simeone’s side will have to win at least seven of their remaining 10 games, and not lose to Barcelona.
It is hard to judge who has the hardest fixtures, on the face of it. Sevilla, Betis and Barcelona away, suggest perhaps Atletico. Although Barcelona’s run of Madrid, Villarreal and Valencia away, and Atletico at home is not easy either. Nor is Madrid’s, with Los Blancos still to navigate home games against Barcelona, Sevilla and Villarreal. If the three candidates get the same results against these teams as they did last time they played them, Atletico would finish on 94, Barcelona on just 79 and Madrid on 83.
But those teams are not the same now, the fixtures are inverted — home where they were away, and vice versa — and these teams certainly aren’t in the form they were then. If, over the next 10 games, the three sides were to pick up points at the rate of their last 10 games, exit velocity prevailing, Barcelona would finish with 90, Atletico with 85 and Madrid with 83.
“I’ve been telling the players that the objective is important and it’s wonderful if you can get there but the journey is more important, what matters most, what you enjoy most, is travelling the path,” Simeone said, although he likely didn’t believe it. Instead, his other mantra stands: game by game.
Ten of them remain now, the season entering into weeks when you can even forgive Zidane his habit of calling every game a final. That’s not so far off now, lose and it’s gone. Nor is the line: “People seem to think we would win the league by 15 or 20 points,” Simeone said. “I don’t know what they expected.”
Not this, not then. But that’s what they’ve got. A league where there was none.
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