Gerard Piqué knew it, and maybe everyone did. By then, at least at one point or another, everyone had said it, believe it or not. But that day he did, and the rest soon joined. For once, the Barcelona defender said he was able to enjoy a post-match interview. And so, standing at the Sánchez-Pizjuán at the end of February, after Barcelona’s 6-1 win over Sevilla, he took his position in front of the microphone and the empty stands, smiled and said:
“Yes, of course, there is still a race for the league title – worse things have been seen.”
It was an unusual way of putting it, but Atlético de Madrid manager Diego Simeone knew he was right, and that’s why 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 his direction, be on the verge of losing a league title catastrophically as well? Worse things have been seen, but not much worse.
When Atlético beat Cádiz 4-2, the title race did indeed appear to be over. He closed January with a 10-point advantage at the top of the table, and one game less. He had scored 50 points, and was on his way to 100. To put things in context, Madrid and Barcelona were on their way to 76.
“We have to be realistic,” acknowledged Ronald Koeman. “We are not in a position to win much.” Meanwhile, Zinédine’s assistant Zidane insisted: “Madrid fans continue to believe in the team, because it is in their DNA to fight to the end.” But that sounded more like a matter of pride than points, and David Bettoni knew the end was near.
Had finished. Although, in reality, he hadn’t finished anything.
February changed everything. In 12 days, Atlético lost as many points as it had lost in the entire season. From 50 out of 57 possible to just five in the last four games. In eight games they let slip 11 points after having lost just 17 in 19 previous games. They hit the crossbar, the post, the goalkeeper and missed easy shots, but they simply did not manage to open the way as they had been doing. The fear returned to visit them, the pressure arrived, the fatalism. The games of advantage – points that had been added in advance, as if they did not even need to be played – were consumed. The extra lives were exhausted.
Meanwhile, in Barcelona and Madrid, something moved. Slow at the beginning, but with each game they were gaining speed. It wasn’t always pretty, but points are points. At the end of a 1-0 win at Real Valladolid, Lucas Vázquez of Madrid set about remarking to his teammates how important that result had been. Madrid managed to hold on. It had been ruled out many times, but now there was a chance. Somehow.
The margins could be finite. Let’s take week 27 as an example. Two excellent shots on the finish: one by Karim Benzema, one by Luis Suárez; one hits the stick and goes in, one hits the stick and goes out. Benzema converts against Elche, Suárez fails against Getafe, leaving Madrid just six points behind Atlético. There is game. Turn things around and Atlético would be 10 points ahead of Madrid. There is no game.
A recurring theme, the third rescue mission in a row for Madrid: Real Sociedad (tie in 89 ‘), Atlético (tie in 88’), and Elche (winning goal in 92 ‘). As for Barcelona, they are unbeaten at 19. Unconvincing at first, now they are playing with everything and they are definitely the best team of the moment in Spain. The only question is whether it was left too long. If Atlético can hold on to what he has.
The derby was especially damaging for the leader of the league; it was an opportunity for Atlético to shake off its rivals … until Karim Benzema scored the tying goal at the end. But he was not the only one: Celta had drawn in the 89th minute. In search of the tying goal at the end of a match against Levante, they left a space for the rival and ended up conceding a goal. It is one of lime and another of sand, of course: last weekend, Alavés could have done the same, but Jan Oblak saved a penalty at the end. The vulnerability was revealed, the nerves were evident to all, but this time they avoided disaster.
“A championship save,” read a headline on the front page. It was “half the title,” the newspaper said inside. So many moments have been “half a title” that there must be dozens of titles to hand out when La Liga ends at the end of May.
There is only one. Which is more than many had thought. The League is there to fight it. It seemed to be finished, defined. And then the headlines began to pray: THE LEAGUE IS TURNED ON. HOT LEAGUE. THE LEAGUE BURNS. And the favorite: ¡Hay Liga! There is play, and it didn’t always seem that way. Athletic was too good. Madrid and Barcelona, too bad. No more.
And here we are.
Atlético has yet to face Real Betis (visitor), Huesca (home), Athletic de Bilbao (visitor), Eibar (home), Elche (visitor), BARCELONA (visitor), Real Sociedad (home), Osasuna (home) and Real Valladolid (visitor).
Meanwhile, Barcelona has matches against: Real Valladolid (home), REAL MADRID (visitor), Getafe (home), Villarreal (visitor), Granada (home), Valencia (visitor), ATLÉTICO MADRID (home), Levante (visitor) , Celta Vigo (local) and Eibar (visitor).
Finally, Madrid will face: Eibar (home), Barcelona (home), Cadiz (visitor), Real Betis (home), Getafe (visitor), Osasuna (home), Sevilla (home), Granada (visitor), Athletic Bilbao (visitor) and Villarreal (local).
However, they do not start from the same line. Atlético is first, a position it has held for 15 weeks, and currently has 66 points. Barcelona is second, four points behind, with 62, while Madrid is third, six points behind, with 60. (But with a better mark, already insurmountable, head to head).
“We have two huge teams behind that will not lose any games,” says Simeone. Which can’t be entirely correct – unless he’s sure his team won’t beat Barcelona and the clasico will end in a draw – but it tells you something about the pressure they handle, the mentality they must adopt. There is no room for spot measurements, no room for mistakes, or to relax. Atlético has not had an easy game since Cádiz. Every tense and exhausting week, a heart attack, and now you must overcome them no matter what. There are no excuses, there is no way out, there are no easy paths.
Atlético’s position is the best, but he’s by no means certain. He would have scored for this at the beginning of the season, if not towards the middle. And you can still lose; the other team does not. Ronald Koeman clearly called for caution when he said, “The sun is shining today, but it could rain tomorrow.” And yet it is difficult to avoid the feeling that Simeone’s side will have to win at least seven of their 10 remaining matches and not lose against Barcelona.
It’s hard to judge who has the toughest dates, at first glance. Visiting games against Sevilla, Betis and Barcelona, suggest that perhaps Atlético. Although Barcelona’s run with games against Madrid, Villarreal and Valencia away and Atlético at home (Barcelona) is not easy either. Neither is that of Madrid; the whites still have local games against Barcelona, Sevilla and Villarreal. If the three candidates achieve the same results against these teams as the last time they played against them, Atlético would finish with 94, Barcelona with 79 and Madrid with 83.
But those teams are no longer the same, the dates are at home when they had been visitors before and vice versa, and these teams are certainly not in the same condition. If during the next 10 games the three teams score points with the same rhythm as they did in the last 10, with the exit speed prevailing, Barcelona would finish with 90, Atlético with 85 and Madrid with 83.
“I have told the players that the goal is important and it is wonderful if you reach it, but the journey is more important, it is what matters most. What is most enjoyable is walking the road,” said Simeone, although he probably does not creates it. Instead, his other mantra remains: match by match.
Now there are 10 left, and the season is reaching the weeks where you can even forgive Zidane for his habit of calling each game a final. It is no longer so wrong; you lose and you are left out. Neither is the phrase: “It seems that people believed we would win the league by 15 or 20 points,” Simeone said. “I don’t know what they expected.”
Not that. But that’s what there is. A league where there wasn’t before.