On Sunday morning Marca went with the headline: “Martino throws in the towel.” And in more ways than one did Barcelona Coach Tata Martino do it. “The buck stops with me for the poor year which Barcelona have had…There are times when you don't live up to the expectations and I don't see the need to ask for a second chance, because I don't deserve it,” said the Argentine as he gave a big hint that he will be on his way out this summer.
He then went on to say: “We have been able to challenge for La Liga up until today…obviously we would have liked to reach the end of the season still with a chance,” as he essentially gave up on the title race altogether.
But perhaps Martino should not have done so. Even after Barca’s completely unexpected draw at home to Getafe they still had a chance to retain the title. And their chances would be enhanced if, by some miracle, Levante could topple Atletico Madrid on Sunday afternoon. That is exactly what they did.
Atletico have, as according to Diego Simeone’s philosophy this season, gone about their unlikely title bid “game by game”. Each week, no matter the opposition, they have always found a way. Against Levante they could not.
A strange own goal in the opening few minutes forced Los Colchoneros to chase the game practically for the entire 90 minutes. Having to come from behind is seldom a position in which they find themselves and it showed.
Atletico were forced to come out and attack in search of an equaliser. But nothing was going the visitors’ way. They peppered Keylor Navas’ goal but the Costa Rican was in unbeatable form, as so often he has been this season.
Shots reigned in from all angles and just when finally Navas was beaten, it was the woodwork that denied Adrian. Refereeing decisions also went against them, in particular two that ruled Diego Costa offside when he was clean through on goal.
Credit must be given to Levante. Les Granotes are a difficult side to beat at home and particularly when defending a lead, which they do and did so well. It may not have been pretty, but the hosts were strong in defence and were even able to get the sucker punch second goal on the counter in the second-half.
What also showed in Atletico’s performance was their lack of experience in fighting for League titles. Following Filipe Luis’ own goal, Atletico went straight into panic mode. Clearly intent on getting a quick equaliser, they rushed their passes as they hurriedly moved the ball forward.
Simeone was perhaps at fault for this. As a Coach he too does not have experience winning League titles. Making two half-time changes only added to the anxiety and tension within his team. It suggested that he too was worried.
Heading into the game Atletico needed six points to all but wrap up La Liga. This remains true still. The thing that has changed now, however, is that they will have to pick up the last three of these at Camp Nou on the final day of the season – not an easy thing to do.
Assuming that both Atletico and Barcelona win their next game, the title may well be decided on the last day. An Atletico win will see them become champions while a Barcelona win could keep the title in Catalonia or, and this is something that most Catalans do not want to contemplate, it could give it to Real Madrid, should they win their three remaining games.
But unlike his compatriot Martino, Simeone put a positive spin on matters. “This defeat is the best thing that could happen,” he claimed. Few people, if any, including probably him, believe this. A loss at this stage of the season is never welcome.
But, it underlined the difference between the two Argentines – showing why one has done so much with so few resources while the other has done so little with so many.
To only add to the twists and turns, on Sunday evening Real Madrid left it late to salvage a draw and keep their hopes alive. Carlo Ancelotti’s men went behind twice at home to Valencia before Cristiano Ronaldo – who else? – came to the rescue in the dying stages.
Not for a long time has La Liga been so tight and competitive at the top. But, this weekend it seemed as if, like Martino, all three teams wanted to throw in the towel. Since they all came up short, the race remains as tight – and thrilling – as it was before. And there is still more to come.