After only two minutes, it seemed as if it was going to plan. Atletico Madrid were up. Fernando Torres had scored. A win seemed almost certain.
Still on the cards, a thrilling three-way title race was to be decided on the final day. But, with the final whistle only two teams remained, Barcelona and Real Madrid. Atletico were, or rather are, out of the race. La Liga is over for them.
Fresh from eliminating one of Europe’s best in Bayern Munich from the Champions League, Atletico’s hopes of a second League title in three years came to an end on Sunday afternoon against the most unlikely opponent, Levante.
Already relegated and without anything to play for, in a stadium basically empty where only Rojiblancos fans could be heard and trailing by a goal after only a couple of minutes, there was little need for Levante to get a result. Alternatively, Atletico were chasing a League title and being on par with leaders Barcelona, their chances were well and truly alive.
It all unravelled for Diego Simeone’s men. The campaign is over. Watching Atletico play at the Ciutat de Valencia, it was not hard to see the reason why – this team simply ran out of gas.
And it is no wonder. Atletico not only eliminated Bayern, but, they also knocked out Barcelona from the Champions League. Four games and four mammoth performances that now seemed to finally have taken their toll.
Pushing his team to the final of the Champions League is a remarkable feat in itself for Simeone. To do so while also keeping up with Barcelona and Real Madrid with the resources he has at his disposal, has been an incredible achievement and only made possible by squeezing every bit of energy out of his players. But they have their physical limits too.
Taking this into account, Simeone rested regular starters Antoine Griezmann and Diego Godin. Chasing victory, he threw on the former along with Yiannick Carrasco at half time. With 21 goals in the League, Griezmann has been the difference on many occasions this season. In the last round, it was his goal after coming on that kept Atletico in the hunt. He did not have the same effect this time. If anything, in the second period Atletico were worse.
Alberto Barbero of Spanish sports daily Marca mooted another reason for Atleti’s defeat. Up by a goal against a team without a need to win, it was all going too well for Atletico. Using Barbero’s words, “Atletico is a team that thrives on being challenged,” and this perspective has some merit given their performances in the Champions League and against Real Madrid and Barcelona in the league.
Speaking after the game, Simeone gave some perspective to Atleti’s failure. “In years gone by, Atletico were out of the running 10 games prior to the end of the season,” he reminded. And this is true. They have come a long way. Never did anyone expect them to challenge Spain’s traditional big two, Real Madrid and Barcelona. Not this year, not last and nor the even prior when they won.
But this year, now it is down to Spain’s big two. The Barca lead by a point and also have the advantage of a better head to head. This means that come next week, only one scenario can lead to Real usurping La Blaugrana’s slender but significant lead. Barca have to lose and Real have to win.
History is on the Catalans’ side. Barca have never lost a League title when heading into the final round in first place. Furthermore, Los Blancos have never won a title arriving on the final day in second place. The four times in La Liga history that the two sides have been only ones left fighting on the final day, on every single occasion it has been Barca that has come out on top, the last time being 2010.
But as Zinedine Zidane reminded us in his post-match Press conference, “I'm always positive and know that anything can happen in football.” And indeed this is true. Sometimes history counts for little.