MADRID – “If we didn’t suffer, we wouldn’t be us,” Atletico Madrid captain Koke said on Wednesday night but after 36 games and nine months, a 10-point advantage spurned and a two-point advantage left, the trophy was finally in sight.
With just two games left to play, a win on Sunday at home to Osasuna could be enough for the league leaders to clinch the title.
Koke was referring to Atletico’s 2-1 win over Real Sociedad, when they had to hang on “unnecessarily” according to Diego Simeone, after missing chances for a third goal and then conceding one to set up a nail-biting finish.
But he could also have been talking about Atletico’s season, in which they would have won the title by now if it was not for a dramatic drop in form and might have seen it disappear completely if Barcelona and Real Madrid had not been so lacklustre in making them pay.
Instead, Atletico have clung on, neither losing hope nor put out of their misery, the belief growing that they might yet somehow find a way through.
In April, the gap had closed and Real Madrid had the wind behind them but draws against Getafe and Real Betis checked the momentum before another draw with Sevilla on Sunday meant the initiative was lost.
Barcelona were the best team in the league between February and May, a defeat in the Clasico just a blip until Granada scored twice in 16 minutes at Camp Nou.
Barca lost there and again away at Levante on Tuesday, their chances evaporating in less than two weeks.
Atletico have managed back-to-back wins only once since February but they have done just enough to keep their heads above water and now they could pull away once and for all.
Real Madrid’s 4-1 thrashing of Granada on Thursday night applied pressure but an Atletico victory against Osasuna will still mean the title is theirs, as long as Real Madrid fail to win away at Athletic Bilbao.
If Atletico and Real Madrid both win, the battle will go to the final weekend, although as a two-horse race instead of three. Barca would be out of the running regardless of what they do at home to Celta Vigo.
Sevilla, who briefly had an outside chance, have already conceded, their victory over Valencia on Wednesday not enough after Atletico overcame Real Sociedad at the Wanda Metropolitano.
In the car park outside the stadium, a group of around 50 Atleti fans had gathered to cheer the team on, their singing audible inside the ground and on the pitch too, where Koke said the players felt an extra push.
“We could hear them outside, especially when we needed them in the last 10 minutes,” Koke said.
But just as Atletico’s victory was not as comfortable as it should have been, the title race remains alive, with Real Madrid on their shoulder ready to pounce.
“We can only keep putting pressure on Atletico and hope they don’t win both of their games,” said Thibaut Courtois on Thursday. “We are close, there is no margin for error.”
Atletico’s fans would rather any other team be chasing them because if suffering is part of the club’s DNA, so is disappointment, a tendency to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
“There is fatigue and there is anxiety,” admitted Simeone, who had jogged up the tunnel, punching the air as he went. A day later at Los Carmenes, Zidane smiled. “We’re still in it,” he said.
Fans will be allowed inside some La Liga stadiums on Sunday for the first time in 14 months, with Valencia considered one of the regions ready to welcome back supporters.
It means Valencia against Eibar and Villarreal against Sevilla could both accept fans, albeit only at 30 per cent capacity and at a maximum of 5,000 according to the guidelines set by the Spanish government.
Eibar could be relegated if they fail to beat Valencia while Real Valladolid and Elche will also be hoping to extend their fight until the last day. Valladolid visit Real Sociedad and Elche play away at Cadiz.
Fixtures (all Sunday 1630 GMT):
Alaves v Granada, Athletic Bilbao v Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid v Osasuna, Barcelona v Celta Vigo, Real Betis v Huesca, Getafe v Levante, Cadiz v Elche, Real Sociedad v Real Valladolid, Valencia v Eibar, Villarreal v Sevilla.BSS/AFP