Atlético Madrid were two minutes away from a derby victory that would have been a giant step towards winning the league, but if anyone knows that Real Madrid aren’t finished until the final whistle, it’s them – and so it proved once again. This could, and possibly should, have been done: the game and maybe the title too. Instead, a late Karim Benzema goal levelled the city derby at 1-1 to keep the La Liga title race alive.
It may be considered cruel but perhaps too it was reward for Real’s resistance, the survival instinct that sustains them. Reward particularly for the three players who most sustain them: Benzema, Casemiro and Thibaut Courtois. Perhaps it was also punishment for Atlético’s failure to put this beyond them, opportunity lost.
Luis Suárez’s early goal had taken Atlético close, momentarily giving them an eight-point lead over their neighbours and a five-point lead over Barcelona with a game in hand. It was a lead that they might have added to in a match they largely controlled for over an hour, only for it to slip through their fingers at the point they decided the best thing they could do was cling on.
The opening goal came early but not before time. Just 14 minutes had passed when Luis Suárez scored and yet it did not feel like it set a pattern so much as confirmed one, Atlético imposing their authority from the beginning, the ball moved with a precision and a certain tranquillity too. Mario Hermoso played from deep, Kieran Trippier was always open, Koke offered continuity and Suarez’s touches were invariably as neat as they were intelligent, while Marcos Llorente dashed everywhere.
One of those runs led to the goal, Llorente leaping over Nacho and breaking towards the box up the right, before slipping a pass through for Suárez. Courtois came to him, a formidable obstacle that the Uruguayan overcame by screwing a clever shot into the far corner with the outside of his foot.
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Atlético had the lead and control, Real’s route was a repetitive and as yet unsuccessful one – through the air to Benzema. Three times he leapt; with none of them could he make a sufficiently clean contact. But Atlético’s feeling of superiority was not reflected in the scoreline and Real were denied a way back in just before half time when after a long VAR check by the referee, Alejandro Hernández Hernández, judged that Felipe had not handballed inside his area.
Atlético should have increased their lead as the second half began, Courtois fulfilling the familiar role of rescuing Real, twice denying Suárez before Ángel Correa horribly scuffed a half-volley from just six yards out. Atlético threatened often but their lead remained a single goal. As time ticked away, that seemed like something to protect and hold as much as expand, Atlético getting deeper as Real reached for an equaliser.
That was an invitation to attack, although genuine chances were few until the final minutes. As Courtois had denied Suárez before, Oblak denied Benzema now. Vinícius bent a perfect delivery into the path of Benzema in front of the penalty spot, but the Slovenian superbly saved his first shot, leapt up and saved the second shot too. He saved a third a couple of minutes later, this time from a free-kick. But he couldn’t save the fourth, and the way it unfolded was the story of this half and, who knows, perhaps this season.
Close now, concerned too, Atlético got deeper and deeper, reinforcements sent on to resist, a policy that may have rebounded on them. At one end, Saúl and Suárez were unable to make the most of a break, one last opportunity passed up. At the other, almost immediately, Benzema ran at them, stepped past the substitute Geoffrey Kondogbia, played a smart one-two with Casemiro and rolled the ball home to leave the title race as open as the net.