By 8 p.m. CEST on Saturday night, one of Real Madrid or Atletico Madrid will be champions of La Liga — and one won’t be. And that’s when they’ll start to wonder, when they’ll remember every shot, every miss, every chance that went untaken. Every single little thing that happened will be magnified and every moment will be the moment that mattered. They will look back and think: that was the league. And when it’s as close this, they might just be right.
Seven long months later, the Spanish league title race comes down to a single evening. And while seems like a simple equation, something about this season says that it won’t be and that the drama is not done yet. Atletico Madrid travel to Real Valladolid knowing that if they win, they will win the league. They also know that if they don’t win, they will not win the league. They are only two points clear, so a draw will put their fate back in Real Madrid’s hands as they face Villarreal at home and have the better head-to-head record.
Whatever happens, let’s face it, the loser will look at the referee, which is far easier than looking at themselves. A conspiracy is the easiest thing to see. And you can guarantee that at some point this will be ‘The League Of [insert the name of your least favourite referee here]’. Someone will say that it slipped away because of that penalty, or that offside, or that red card. They will be convinced that VAR was vengeful.
It is easy to feel robbed, but it is easy, too, to feel regret. It is easy to look at bad luck; much harder to look at good luck. Success is rarely ascribed to fortune while failure so often is. But players and fans will also think what could have been, what they could have done, how different it might have turned out, if only … But for that chance … That was it …
If Atletico do not win the league, Angel Correa will be revisited by Levante; if Real Madrid fail then Vinicius Jr. will be haunted by his miss against Sevilla FC. And countless others by countless other moments. Even Luis Suarez and Karim Benzema, the men who brought their teams here, will recall moments when they could have ensured they didn’t need to, when it could have been done sooner. Watch any game, from any point in the season, and you can probably find a turning point.
Which is great. Which is only happening because it’s so tight, so competitive, because the journey has been so good — and a league is a journey, not just an end. Not even an end, perhaps. That’s the whole point. Diego Simeone even said that previously, although he probably didn’t mean it.
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By Sunday night, Real Madrid could be champions on the head-to-head record. Atletico will think back to the derby and the 20 seconds that went between them almost going 2-0 up and it finishing 1-1. And about every other moment, too. There have been so many of them, all of them cast as decisive now, even though nothing is decided.
Actually, that’s not true. It has been decided that Barcelona are not here and decided that Sevilla are not either. Think about Granada, the day that Barcelona could have gone top for the first time in a year, and lost. Think about Levante — they’ll all be thinking about Levante. Think about Bilbao’s Inaki Williams scoring late against Sevilla, just when they thought: actually, hang on, maybe we can compete for this thing. Think about Real Madrid’s Toni Kroos and that 96th-minute goal to save a 2-2 draw.
On the other side, think about that moment in the same game when there were two penalties, one at each end and the referee had to decide which one to give: Sevilla’s or Real Madrid’s. And how that changed the destiny of the league. Or did it? It might have just changed back again, which is what it did all year long. That too, like so many other moments, decided that while Barcelona and Sevilla aren’t here, Atletico and Real Madrid are.
Virtually every week, they have been on edge, but there they are, still standing. Somehow. Atletico in particular can count the comfortable afternoons on the fingers of one hand. Madrid can count many of their victories thanks to the fingers of Thibaut Courtois’s hands. Now, at last, it really is decisive. By 8 p.m., only one will still be standing. Win, or it’s over.
Atletico should beat Valladolid, sure. This week there was talk of a pact, Valladolid’s president Ronaldo ready to try to do Real Madrid a favour. Think about it — although it might be best not to, best to ignore it — and it’s bordering on the offensive. As if Valladolid’s mission is to help Madrid, when they have their own survival on the line. That said, they also know that they will only escape relegation if they win and Huesca lose and Elche drop points.
Simple, then? Simple? This season? That’s just not the way it has been, which is why we’re here. It’s not really what these teams do, either. And yet here’s the thing: is it time to rethink those identities we take for granted?
Much is made, and rightly so, of how Real Madrid always seem to survive, like they are imbued with a supernatural power, about how you have to kill them a hundred times to ensure they’re actually dead and not coming back to get you. Like the broomsticks from Disney’s “Fantasia” — chop them into a million pieces and they’ll still regroup — they always seem to get away with it. Somehow, they’re still in pursuit. And it’s true: it looked over in January, but they have chased Atletico all the way to the line.
Much is made too, and rightly so, about how Atletico Madrid are the team that always seem to find a way to lose, the club capable of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, capable of turning the easiest task into a crisis, always awaiting the cruelest of ends — especially when Real Madrid are around. Think about Champions League finals in Milan and Lisbon, think about 14 years without winning one derby. And this season people did think about them.
Any other team with a 10-point lead and a game in hand, and you’d conclude: well, that’s that done. This time, in the media in Madrid it was more of a case of trying to get Atletico to conclude that themselves, or at least admit that they were going for the title, that they were favourites. As if it would actually make any difference. Except perhaps to load on the pressure, to make the defeat even more painful when it came, which might just have been the point.
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Many could see it coming: if anyone can let it slip, can collapse, can fall apart, it is Atletico. If anyone can hunt them down, it is Real. Or so it goes. When Atletico were defeated 2-1 at Athletic Bilbao on April 25, it felt inevitable somehow. When they were losing to Osasuna three weeks later it was unbelievable and yet so very believable too.
Except that the legends, the stories, are sometimes exactly that: stories. And that’s where Suarez and Renan Lodi appeared, to seal an agonising 2-1 victory. Atletico have gone into the final day top of the table nine times in their history and won the league each time. Madrid on the other hand remember Tenerife, twice. Or Juanito walking to the dressing room on his knees as in 1981, celebrating a title he thought they had won in the way that he had promised he would, only to arrive to find out that they hadn’t won it at all.
Atletico might have thought that they had blown it in Bilbao. Plenty of others did. They had only won half of their past eight games, their lead lost. The league was not entirely in their hands anymore. Barcelona could climb above them, going top for the first time in a year, just a few days later when they beat Granada. But they didn’t. Madrid could have gone top the week after that. They didn’t either. Atletico were still top, and that too is an achievement.
Last weekend, as it went away from them, Simeone gathered his players and said to stay calm, keep their heads. And they did.
Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid are still standing, and it’s so good this way, every single moment seeming to matter because it has. Game by game, Simeone says, right to the end. There are 90 minutes left and then a lifetime to linger on it, wondering what might have been.