“Much worse things have happened,” Gerard Piqué said and Diego Simeone knew he was right. The Atlético Madrid manager has been through it before – the worst thing in football according to one of the men who suffered it with him – and could be forgiven if he feared going through it again, a hundred horrible scenarios playing in his mind on Sunday night. He had stood there, arms wide, smile wider, laughing when João Félix added to Stefan Savic’s opener to put his team 2-0 up at Villarreal, but now tension tore at him. On the touchline at the Cerámica, a lot to lose, Simeone leapt, shouted and spat and threw his arms about, unable to settle for a second.
As Sunday’s match went into the final quarter of an hour, chances seemed to arrive faster than time, and they were all for Villarreal. Every time Samu Chukwueze turned inside, Simeone’s throat tightened. With every touch for Gerard Moreno, his pulse quickened. Carlos Bacca shot and he screamed. Álex Baena smashed a post and he jumped like someone had put a banger beneath him. Jan Oblak made a superb save and he clutched at his head. He sent for reinforcements – Geoffrey Kondogbia for Luis Suárez, Lucas Torreira for Ángel Correira – and clung on. He crouched, stood, ran and pointed. He tore at his hair when Jaume Costa went close, and almost exploded when Dani Parejo was denied. He was doing his nut, basically.
And when at last the final whistle went, Atlético surviving to win 2-0, the man who has now won as many games for the club as anyone else ever, drawing level with Luis Aragonés, let out a roar, clenched his fists and ran shouting down the line. Without slowing, he dashed through a hidden blue door in the stand at the western end and into the makeshift dressing room under the seats. From where there was soon the sound of someone hammering against metal panels and shouts of celebration. All of which might seem a bit over the top, but serves to illustrate how big this win was. How big the whole weekend was, in fact.
You wouldn’t have guessed it, a man walking a dog and a couple pushing a pram about the only people around the ground as a convey of cars made their way along a narrow, quiet street, Villarreal’s players arriving one by one and already in their kit at a place where the only fans are cardboard cut-outs. Or inside the Sánchez Pizjuán, where the club’s anthem abruptly fell silent, someone hurriedly pressing stop because the game was about to start and where Marc-André ter Stegen’s voice echoed around. And it might not feel like it on Monday night at Valdebebas, a training ground where the big stadium announcer keeps announcing big stadium things to nobody. But watching Simeone, it did: a glimpse that this was the weekend, the pressure greater than ever.
Atlético came into it as leaders, three points clear and with a game in hand still, sure. But they had been top for 11 weeks and favourites way beyond that, virtually been declared champions already, opportunity redefined as obligation. Now suddenly their lead was narrower than it had been since January, vulnerability suddenly visible, and the league was more alive than it had been for much longer than that. Back then, with their match against Athletic postponed because of the snow, they had three matches in hand, still led by a point, and had defeated Sevilla 2-0, making it 12 wins in 13. As for Madrid and Barcelona, they just weren’t very good, their hopes already hollow. Or so it goes.
Seven, seven, 10, seven and five points clear at the start of the previous five matchdays, Atlético came into this weekend having been beaten by Levante, having won just one in four, and having dropped as many points in 12 days as in the rest of the season. They had extended their run without a clean sheet to eight and used up all but one of their games in hand. They had also just been beaten by Chelsea, old doubts surfacing: about how good they really are and also who they really are. They arrived with just a three-point lead and that game in hand no longer feeling like a guarantee, points added in advance as they had been all season. Oh, and they knew that next up was Real Madrid.
Nor was it just one team behind them now, it was three: Madrid, Barcelona and Sevilla, all cast as contenders. And this weekend was first against sixth, second against fifth and third against fourth. It started with Sevilla-Barcelona on Saturday afternoon and ends with Real Sociedad-Madrid on Monday night. Between them came Villarreal-Atlético. Which was even bigger than the league positions suggested: only Madrid and Barcelona have a better record against Simeone’s Atlético than Villarreal, against whom he only has a 35% win ratio; Atlético had not won there in five years, losing three times; and by the time they set off for the east, Barcelona had beaten Sevilla 2-0 at the Sánchez Pizjuán. Any margin had gone.
It wasn’t just that Barcelona had won, either. It was that they had actually won a big game and that they had convinced too, Sevilla midfielder Joan Jordan admitting the visitors had been “comfortable”. Much as Madrid were sort of starting to convince, if only in the odd way they did on route to claiming last year’s league title, winning four in a row, three without conceding. It was that Leo Messi is, well, Leo Messi: top scorer now, he has scored in eight consecutive games. That the pieces appear to be falling into place, domestically at least. That they hadn’t lost in 15 league games and had won nine of their last 10; that but for an absurd last-minute penalty against Cádiz, this win would have left them top by the time Atlético kicked off in Villarreal.
“Barcelona are here!” warned the front page of El Mundo Deportivo. “Yes, we can!” cheered Sport. Marca and AS both declared the league to be on “red alert.” But it was Piqué who said it best. “Usually when I come here and I have a microphone in front of me, it’s something bad,” he said post-game, “but this time it’s a pleasure; today I can say I’m very proud of the team. We’ve shown that this team is very, very alive. 2021 has given us reasons to be confident. No, the situation isn’t perfect but we hope to achieve something. Is there a title race? Of course there is. Much worse things have happened.”
Particularly when you know it could. “Maximum pressure,” said the headline on the front of AS on Sunday morning, helpfully, and that night perhaps it showed. In Simeone, certainly.
Savic had opened the scoring midway with a far-post header that went in off Pedraza – “I hope they give it to me,” he said a little optimistically – but only after a three-minute pantomime in which the linesman ruled it out for offside, VAR said it was onside and looked for something instead, and both sets of subs spent the time shouting “foul!” “goal!” “foul!” “goal!” João Félix, on as a sub at half-time, then scored a superb second, turning towards the touchline and, without a hint of a smile, muttered: “shut the fuck up”. And, apart from one brilliant save from Sergio Asenjo to deny Suárez, that was pretty much that.
Over two games against Levante, Atlético racked up 42 shots and scored once; here they took just six, and scored twice. With 64% of possession, Villarreal had taken 19, and sent 22 balls into the box, two words dominating all the coverage afterwards: suffering and survival. At times the tension had been too much but Atlético had made it to the final whistle with a clean sheet for the first time since that win over Sevilla and with Suárez avoiding the yellow that would have meant missing the derby next weekend.
Villarreal 0-2 Atlético, Granada 2-1 Elche, Cadiz 0-1 Betis, Celta Vigo 1-1 Valladolid, Getafe 3-0 Valencia, Alaves 0-1 Osasuna, Sevilla 0-2 Barcelona, Eibar 1-1 Huesca, Levante 1-1 Athletic Bilbao
“It’s always hard here,” Simeone said. He looked exhausted, face flushed, but he was happy, even the episode with João Félix failing to take the smile from his face. “You’ll have to ask him,” he said, taking the opportunity to deliver a reminder to his player. “Or ask me next time after I’ve spoken to him – and then I’ll decide whether or not to tell you. But I love a player who rebels, a player with pride, who reacts in difficult moments, when he has been a long time without a goal. He hasn’t scored for a while; I don’t know when. He needed it, the team needed it; he needs it, the team needs it. Rebels? Give them to me.”
It was late, his players had gone, dashing to the hotel for a shower and dinner before beginning the journey home. A mini-bus was waiting outside for him. He could afford to smile, if only for a little while: his team were five points clear, time for someone else to feel the pressure. Barcelona had won, Atlético had won, now Madrid had to do the same. “I’d be lying if I said I won’t watch it,” Simeone grinned. “It’s a nine o’clock kick-off, a good time, a nice game, and I love football.”