Game by game, week after week, Atletico continue to fight for La Liga. It is the philosophy Diego Simeone has incorporated into side’s mentality and thus far it has worked
In a League where two teams dominate annually, there is almost an expectation that Atletico will eventually fall by the way side. But, with just six games remaining, there they remain on top of the standings and on course to make history. However, it has not been all smooth sailing and against Villarreal on Saturday, it was a rough ride.
The League leaders went into the fixture with a number of doubts. Most significantly, Diego Costa was ruled out with an injury. So too was Arda Turan. That was two of Simeone’s best players unavailable.
Then there was the fact that just four days prior Atleti had dug out a huge performance at Camp Nou where they came away with a 1-1 draw – and an advantage going into the second-leg of their Champions League tie.
Tired and fatigued, many thought the home side would finally flounder against the Yellow Submarines. But, as ever, they did not.
Instead, Los Rojiblancos ground out a slender 1-0 victory. Raul Garcia, who partnered David Villa in attack, got the all-important goal 14 minutes in.
There was some controversy about the goal. Before steering the ball into the net with his head, Garcia clearly pushed Mario Gaspar. It was only a slight push, but enough to completely rid himself of the defender’s attention.
On another day, the referee would have called a foul. On Saturday he did not and it could have real ramifications come May.
Few will begrudge Garcia his goal. His winner was his 12th strike in all competitions, a career best. The Spaniard, like so many of his teammates, has played at another level this season and this is all thanks to Simeone.
Neither will many begrudge Atleti the three points. Clearly tired, they dug in and suffered to get the result. It was the kind of battling performance that once defined Simeone as a player.
The crowd played their part too. Before the game Simeone urged Atletico’s supporters to be their 12th man and fill the rafters.
They answered his call, almost filling Vicente Calderon and producing the kind of electric atmosphere for which the ground has become famous. There is certainly something special in the air down by the Rio Manazares this season.
It was not quite the same atmosphere in the game played at Camp Nou the same day. After a week that saw the club banned from signing new players by FIFA until the summer of 2015, coupled with the referendum over the stadium’s future held on the same day, there was tension in the air.
Barcelona also seemed a tense on the field and far from their flowing best. Nevertheless, their pressure told on bottom side Real Betis, who conceded two penalties – Lionel Messi scoring the first and then scoring from a rebound for the second – either side of a rather unlucky own goal from Jordi.
With Barca and Atleti winning, Real Madrid travelled to Anoeta for what many considered the toughest fixture of the top three clubs. Yet, they made it look so easy and without Cristiano Ronaldo too.
Gareth Bale stepped up in the Portuguese’s absence while Alvaro Morata, Asier Illarramendi and Pepe scored in what was a fine performance from Carlo Ancelotti’s men.
Following the weekend’s results, it is very much a case of ‘as you were’. Atleti remain a point clear of Barca with Madrid two points further behind. It is all still to play for and as Simeone said, “there are still many, many days, many hours and many seconds” remaining in this most enthralling race for La Liga.