By Cillian Shields l @pile_of_eggs
This is the Luis Suarez Zone, and all of La Liga are living in it.
Just as Atletico Madrid were on the cusp of what would have been an all-too-typical collapse, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, up steps the prodigious Uruguayan to seal three points for Diego Simeone’s side which leaves them just one step away from claiming their eleventh league title.
An enthralling penultimate round to La Liga saw ten games kick off at the same time with something on the line in each of them, between the league championship, European places and the relegation battle.
Fortunes changed up and down through the course of a wild couple of hours across Spain. For 23 of the final 25 minutes of play, it looked as though Real Madrid would head into the final day of the season in the driving seat. At certain points it seemed all three relegation places could be decided. But in the end it’s as-you-were at the top with Atletico maintaining their advantage, and only one of the sides dropping to the Segunda decided, with Eibar’s seven-year dream coming to an end.
Title race: Atletico one step away
Atletico were dangerously close to implosion. In fact, the capitulation was well underway in the dying minutes at the Wanda Metropolitano. Real Madrid, who started the day two points behind in the table but holding the head-to-head advantage in the event of finishing level on points with their crosstown rivals, had gone 1-0 up away to Athletic Bilbao in a manner that almost seemed like destiny awaited them. Los Blancos too often find the way by hook or by crook to put the ball in the net and scupper their neighbours’ hopes.
Nacho’s first goal since February 2020 had the championship in the hands of Zidane’s men from the 68th minute, and Ante Budimir’s goal making it 1-0 to Osasuna just seven minutes later increased the tension tenfold. Atleti could get away with a slip if Madrid had also drawn, but now, with only 15 minutes left to play, the task was enormous and things were not working out on the pitch for Simeone’s side.
Time after time, the ball hit the bar and bounced out, clipped the outside of the other bar, flashed just wide, was stopped by Sergio Herrera between the Rojillo posts. The ball went everywhere except ripple the net, but when it did, twice were Atletico goals ruled out for offside. Tension was beginning to crescendo, and viewers at home started to believe they were watching a dramatic tragedy.
Felix and Lodi had been brought on with the score goalless, and when Hector Herrera and Moussa Dembele replaced Marcos Llorente and Angel Correa, it looked difficult to see how Los Colchoneros got back into the swing of things.
But in their biggest hour of need, it was time for heroes to step up. Joao Felix has, in truth, not had the season that was hoped of him. The early weeks of the campaign were electric, and he looked like the €100+ million playmaker capable of maturing into one of the biggest stars in football that convinced Atletico to pay so much money for him. However, through the middle third and latter end of the campaign, his progress stalled and his performances dampened in parallel with those of his team. Since the turn of the year, he has only started consecutive games on a handful of occasions.
Yet, once the ball fell his way with space between the lines, the young Portuguese was ready to step up. His sumptuous ball over the head of Ramalho dropped perfectly into the path of left-back Renan Lodi who blasted in his first goal of the campaign, almost responding to Nacho’s strike in Bilbao for Real Madrid. Eight minutes remained and Atletico’s tails were up, but a draw would be no good for them due to that Nacho goal.
Diego Simeone had lauded the former Barcelona striker now lining out in the red and white stripes, saying his team were now in the Luis Suarez Zone. The mental fortitude of the Uruguayan clearly spread from him to the rest of his teammates, as the Colchoneros kept battering the Osasuna goal in search of another strike that would make all the difference.
With two minutes remaining, Yannick Carrasco danced in the Osasuna box near the byline and cut the ball back into the danger zone for the awaiting Pistolero to seal Atletico Madrid’s fourth come-from-behind victory in La Liga this season.
The Belgian winger has had an incredible redemption season, returning from China where his career could have easily petered out on handsome wages and an easy lifestyle. However, he wanted more than that, he wanted to return to Madrid and improve on his mentality, his workrate, his performances, and played his way fantastically back into Simeone’s XI. His low cross to Suarez for the all-important finish made it four goals and five assists in the last eight games, highlighting what an important player the tricky winger-turned-wingback has become.
And so, one game remains. Everything is in Atletico’s hands; match or better Real Madrid’s result and they are champions for the first time since 2014, and only the fourth time since 1977. They travel to Valladolid, who are fighting for their lives, while Real Madrid host a Villarreal team whose minds will certainly be on the Europa League final, to be played just four days later. This upcoming final for the Yellow Submarine will likely make it a much easier game for Zidane’s men, but perhaps it’s better for Atletico to know Real Madrid are almost assured three points in the Alfredo Di Stefano as it clears up their task; just win.
Relegation zone: Eibar down, two more from three will follow
Eibar will play in the Segunda next season. After seven incredible years of defying the odds and making the lower mid table of the top flight their seemingly permanent home, they will be back in the second tier, where even there they will be considered, historically, one of the smallest teams.
It should never be forgotten just where Eibar have come from, a tiny village in the Basque hills with a population of just 27,000. Every resident would fit in the Camp Nou four times over. They will have one of the smallest grounds in the Segunda next season, but have consolidated their infrastructure and facilities well during their time in the big league. They’ve spent more seasons in the fourth tier than any other, but could well fancy their chances at coming back up next year.
Bizarrely, who goes down with them can somewhat depend on them, even though they have no hope of saving themselves. Tie-breakers for teams level on points is determined by the head-to-head results, but should Eibar beat Barcelona, we could end up with a situation where all of the Basques, Huesca, and Elche can finish on 33 points.
Elche have the head-to-head advantage over Eibar, Eibar and Huesca are perfectly level, and Huesca have the advantage over Elche. Due to the goal average system employed by the league, this would mean that Elche would be saved if all three finish level on points, which requires an Eibar win to happen. But if Eibar don’t win and Elche and Huesca finish level on points, then Huesca finish above Elche. One way or another, Eibar are down, and two more of Valladolid, Elche, and Huesca will join them in the division below in 2021/22.
For a while, Huesca were on course to pick up a point and Elche were losing at the same time. Had results stayed that way, everything would have been done and dusted at the bottom, but the Ilicitans’ comeback against Cadiz allows them to fight another day, while Betis overcoming the challenge of Huesca hands Valladolid a lifeline.
Deportivo Alaves and Getafe both saved themselves with wins this weekend. The Basques have had an amazing turn of fortune on the pitch since the arrival of Javi Calleja, losing just one of his eight games and picking up 15 of a possible 24 points available. In what could be Pepe Bordalas’s final game at Getafe’s Coliseum, loanees from Barcelona and Madrid secured their survival, the winner a stunning strike from 19-year-old Take Kubo.
Fans back in grounds
For the first time in 14 months, fans were back celebrating goals with their idols in some La Liga grounds. The Spanish government’s decision to allow a partial return of supporters to stadiums is based on the health situation of each autonomous region, and essentially only gives the chance for fans in the Valencian region and Galicia to go to the games.
As such, Valencia and Villarreal were both able to open their doors and welcomed 5,000 and 4,800 supporters back into their grounds respectively. Both sets of supporters had four goals to celebrate, as Valencia relegated Eibar with a 4-1 win and Villarreal put Sevilla to the sword with a 4-0 victory. The game was the first that Unai Emery played in front of Yellow Submarine fans as manager of the club. Next week, Celta Vigo fans will be able to see their side take on Real Betis, giving supporters of Os Celestes their first chance to see Chacho Coudet’s methods in person.
Goal of the week: Take Kubo’s first goal of the season may have been the biggest of his young career. After picking up a loose pass in the middle of the pitch, the Japanese winger advanced to the edge of the box, keeping Levante defender Jorge Miramon guessing as to which way he would shimmy his feet. The 19-year-old then launched his effort into the near top corner from the periphery of the area to secure top flight football for Getafe next season.