They were enjoying this down by the river, singing along in the spring sunshine. Diego Simeone led them through the chorus of Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You dedicated to Fernando Torres, “The Kid” who is 33 on Monday and who had come on this time unlike the last, finally returning from that head injury, and they swiftly followed by chanting at Cholo too.
On the touchline, all in black, he pumped the air; way above, a tiny tot in a tiny red-and-white top bounced on her dad’s shoulders. Jan Oblak was Gypsy Kinged – “Djobi Djoba, every day I love you more” – and Pat Boone’s Speedy Gonzalez, if that’s what it was, was Antoine Griezmann.
Atlético’s anthem rolled round: I’m off to the Manzanares, which they won’t be much longer. And then they serenaded Sevilla.
“Oé, Oá, Sevilla aren’t in the Champions League,” they sang through the smirks. The place was packed. Tickets for the last days at the Vicente Calderón, released together, sold swiftly and this game swiftest of all. It was 4.15pm on Saint Joseph’s – Father’s Day in Spain, a huge banner at the South End declaring: “From fathers to sons” – the sun was out and life was good, optimism overflowing. Bars en route were full, streets stuffed, with kids everywhere. Atletico were in the Champions League quarter-finals for the fourth year running where they face Leicester City, the team everyone wanted and the team that knocked out Sevilla: their opponents and rivals – recent ones, sure, but rivals – and the club that aspired to break up a duopoly only Atlético have broken for a decade.
Gabi described it as the most important game of the season, which it probably wasn’t, but it was important and they were loving this. “The Calderón decides third,” announced AS’s headline and, if that was premature, it was third versus fourth, the biggest game of a big weekend which would help choose who takes the automatic place for next year’s Champions League. There were 10 minutes left, the decision made. Atlético led Sevilla 3-0, Diego Godín heading the first, Griezmann belting the second in off the bar, and Koke getting the third, a late goal from Joaquín Correa changing nothing. Simeone conducted and Jorge Sampaoli finally stopped walking the line, no longer pacing the border of his technical area like a big cat does his cage. This was lost – and so, it seemed, was he. Atlético, on the other hand, have found themselves.
“Sevilla are not in the Champions League,” they sang. Not in it now, not in it next year either? They may not return immediately – not without an August qualifier, anyway. Not after this. Declared title contenders by Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane in January, and still in position as they went into March, they’re now eight points off having played a game more. From looking ahead to the teams just above, Sevilla now look below to the teams behind. Right behind, in Atletico’s case.
Sampaoli’s side still hold third, but for how long? Three weeks ago, Atlético trailed by nine; now, it’s two. Plus, the head-to-head advantage is theirs – at the Pizjuán it finished 1-0 to Sevilla, here it finished 3-1 to Atletico – and the momentum is with them as well. Through in Europe, coming through in the league.
For Sevilla it’s been a costly fortnight, the season slipping through their fingers. Out of Europe, slipping out of it in the league. Four games without a win have seen it fall apart. On either side of that match at the King Power, they dropped five league points and the week before that they dropped two more. Of the eight points they trail Real Madrid by, seven slipped away in three matches allowing Atlético to close the gap on the other side of them. No longer in the title race, they may fear dropping out of the race for third. If Real Sociedad and Villarreal were not so far adrift they might fear slipping further.
Sampaoli had described the visit to the Calderón game as “defining”. If so, it was about more than just the score: if anything, 3-1 was closer than it should have been, AS leading on “Atletico crush Sevilla”, El País with “Atletico devour Sevilla” and Marca “Like a shot”, its match report entitled “Atletico is your daddy.” El Mundo referred to an “Atlético Spring”, and this appeared a portrait of two teams heading in different directions. Atlético are picking up speed just as Sevilla appear to be shuddering towards a halt. They were flat, sluggish, lacking inspiration or organisation, having a lot of the ball but doing virtually nothing with it, unable to escape the pressure, beaten to every challenge, incapable of living with their opponents’ intensity.
Superb for so much of the season, finding ways to secure victories even when they weren’t, that capacity has deserted them. Sampaoli rebels against the reduction of football to athletic condition but physically they seem to be struggling; Sami Nasri – the man Sampaoli openly describes as their best player – has tailed off; and the lack of a No9, always a potential problem, has become more prominent. The absence of Stevan Jovetic surprises.
Sevilla were not Sevilla. “Their vital signs are very weak,” wrote Juan Jiménez in AS, imagining them leaving a “trail of blood on the M30” motorway and imploring them to find “the nearest hospital to cover the wound and recover as soon as possible”.
Now, losing to Atlético is no sign of a crisis – still less at the Calderón, and Simeone was swift to suggest that the first half at the Pizjuán had not been so different to this. They are still third, and Simeone insisted that they have the better run-in. Yet with hindsight this recent poor run may reflect a trend that goes deeper and is not so easy to arrest.
Before the first leg against Leicester they defeated Eibar 2-0, Sampaoli admitting the visitors deserved more; since the first leg, they’ve defeated Betis 2-1, despite being overrun in the first half and won 1-0 over Athletic Bilbao a little fortunately. And if that sounds like just the kind of thing champions do, they also twice drew 1-1, against Alavés and Leganés.
The first leg hurt emotionally – coaching staff knew immediately that they had missed an opportunity to destroy Leicester, ending the tie – and elimination hurt more. “We took an emotional hit,” Correa admitted.
“This hurts; we have to hang on to third place come what may,” Vicente Iborra added. At the Calderón, their manager sat, head bowed forward, fingers kneading at his temples, voice quieter even than normal, clearly affected. “The diagnosis is difficult,” Sampaoli said. “We were in a place of expectation, emotion: we were very close to the quarter-final of the Champions League – when that didn’t happen, it affects you, your ilusión. It’s an emotional situation. We didn’t find ourselves and details went against us. The script didn’t help psychologically. When we did control, they scored. And then it becomes an uphill task.”
Sevilla’s task – their target – has changed. “This defeat distances us from our chances of [the title]. Now we have to look at our chances of qualifying for the Champions League,” Sampaoli said. First, they have to look at themselves. “The team tried to play until the end; that does not alleviate the pain but it does give you some hope. We have time now to think. We have to rediscover the path that we lost at some point; we have to find the real Sevilla.”
Sevilla’s manager left the room silently. Simeone bounded in beaming.
Atlético are Atlético again, he said: they were intense, quick, pressing high; they scored one from a set play, another from a counterattack; Diego Godín is back to his best; Griezmann has scored five goals in four games and is influential all over the pitch; Yannick Carrasco flew up the right; Oblak is back; Saúl is growing into a central role; Koke is imposing himself; they’re defending better. “People, the press, have eulogised Sevilla all season,” he noted, a little pointedly. “And this has been our hardest season; we’ve had to reinvent ourselves, turn it around, find the best way to identify with ourselves; but we’re there. This result gives us enthusiasm and we won’t back down.”
“This was an extraordinary afternoon,” Simeone smiled. “It felt like a Champions League game because of the atmosphere. All those fathers with their kids have had a magnificent day.”
• “Golden Goal” ran the cover of AS. Casemiro got it, from a corner, and it kept Real Madrid top. It might just have taken them a little closer to the league title too. “We depend on ourselves,” he said. San Mamés was, in theory, the hardest away game remaining and it was 1-1 with just over 20 minutes left when Casemiro scored from the only shot Madrid had on target in the entire second half. “They shoot twice and score twice,” Aritz Aduriz said. “It hurts – we deserved quite a lot more than this defeat,” Ernesto Valverdeadded, and he was right. As for Zidane, he admitted: “We suffered – but we played with personality.” Casemiro and Karim Benzema certainly did. Right now, Madrid are not a very good team but they do have very good players.
• Barcelona are living on the edge and, while they might be suffering a collective coronary in Catalonia, it’s quite a lot of fun. They fell behind to Valencia but went ahead again just before half time only for Munir to get an equaliser – he’s now scored in more Barcelona games in La Liga this season than Paco Alcácer. Messi made it 3-2 and Barcelona rattled off 28 shots but while they led, up against 10 men, they didn’t tie it up until the 89th minute, with Valencia having had the chance to make it 3-3. “The league is still alive,” Andrés Iniesta said.
• Fábio Coentrão has admitted to paying someone to help him out during his driving test. To cheat, in other words. So many potential jokes …
• Luis Enrique sends them to sleep …
— AS English (@English_AS) March 20, 2017
• It was a massive win – that might not be massive at all. Sporting went 1-0 down but scored three times in six minutes and 15 seconds to defeat Granada in the battle at the bottom. The problem for them is that however hard they win, the shore keeps slipping just out of reach. Malaga and Leganés got a point each in a 0-0 draw at Butarque – where the atmosphere is good even if there are rarely many goals – and although Depor were defeated, they have recovered with Pepe Mel. Osasuna are “practically in the second division,” their sporting director admits. Granada are not far off, trailing Leganés by seven points, and Sporting are still five from safety.
• Iago Aspas, again. “It was a game for 0-0,” Pepe Mel said of the Galician derby, but Celta have Aspas, so it finished 0-1. “Celso missed his, Aspas put his away,” Deportivo manager Mel shrugged, adding: “We’re annoyed for our fans.” “We want them to survive comfortably and stay in the first division,” Eduardo Berizzo said afterwards, and he sounded like he really meant it too. They have played 68 derbies in the first division now – and it’s 25 wins each.
• Quique Setién announced that he is leaving Las Palmas at the end of the season. They’ll miss him. Everyone will.
• Real Oviedo versus Sporting Gijón in Gambia. For more information and to support the cause, go here: @asturiesxafrica
Results: Alavés 1-0 Real Sociedad, Athletic Bilbao 1-2 Real Madrid, Atlético Madrid 3-1 Sevilla, Barcelona 4-2 Valencia, Deportivo La Coruña 0-1 Celta Vigo, Eibar 1-1 Espanyol, Las Palmas 1-0 Villarreal, Leganés 0-0 Málaga, Real Betis 2-0 Osasuna, Sporting Gijón 3-1 Granada.