Luis Suárez returns to Barcelona with tight La Liga race on the line

Atlético Madrid striker is back at the Camp Nou on Saturday and stakes could scarcely be higher in a rollercoaster title battle

The last time Luis Suárez was on the pitch at the Camp Nou, one sunny afternoon in September last year, he stood alongside Lionel Messi, Gerard Piqué, Sergio Busquets, Sergi Roberto and Jordi Alba, the five of them surrounded by silverware: four league trophies, four cups, one European Cup, a Spanish Super Cup, a European Super Cup, and a Club World Cup. The next time he does should be a huge step towards another La Liga, just not for all of them.

On Saturday Suárez returns to the stage as an opponent, facing Barcelona for the first time since he was forced to leave and joined Atlético Madrid. He does so as their top scorer, on 19 league goals, and with Atlético top, where they have been for five months.

“It will be strange for him and for our players,” Ronald Koeman said, “but it’s not something to linger on and everyone will give everything.” All the more so now. If the emotion was to be expected – Messi responded to Suárez’s departure by writing, “How hard it’s going to be to not share every day with you; it’s going to be strange to see you in a different shirt, even more to play against you” – the edge was not, the importance of the occasion. No one imagined it quite like this but over the past month it has started to feel like the entire season has been building to this: an all or nothing, the weekend that decides their destiny.

Lose, and Atlético will not be leaders for the first time since December, leaving Barcelona top with three games to go, in a position from which Koeman thinks they will be ready to claim the title. They would also leave Real Madrid with the title in their own hands. Win, on the other hand, and Atlético would be on the verge of the first title since they came here on the final day seven years ago.

At their training ground before their final session, a banner hung. “A goal to remember, another feat to make history,” it ran, seeking inspiration in the Diego Godín header that earned them the title at the Camp Nou in 2014.

Sevilla don’t even get a mention there, but they should, even though their candidacy was damaged by an unexpected home defeat against Athletic Bilbao on Monday. La Liga has not been this tight since 1984. With four games remaining, four teams can still win it. Atlético are top with 76 points, Madrid and Barcelona have 74, Sevilla have 70. On Saturday Atlético go to Barcelona; on Sunday Sevilla go to Madrid. By 11 o’clock, if it is not clear who the champions elect are, it should at least be clear who they are not. For much of the season, there was only one.

Athletic Bilbao v Sevilla
Despair for Sevilla, as Iñaki Williams celebrates scoring in Athletic Bilbao’s win on Monday, but they are still in the title race. Photograph: Cristina Quicler/AFP/Getty Images

When Atlético beat Cádiz in late January, it appeared all over. They had lost once in 19, winning 16, and were 10 points clear of Madrid and Barcelona, 11 ahead of Sevilla, with a game in hand. No champions had ever overturned a gap as big. Madrid had just been beaten by Levante, their fourth defeat: “On their knees” one front page said.

Barcelona too had been beaten four times and, although improving, Koeman admitted: “We’re not in a position to win much.” The following week, Atlético conceded a last-minute equaliser against Celta, the start of a run in which they dropped as many points in four matches as in the previous four months: two draws and a defeat in 12 days. There hasn’t been a full-on collapse since, but they have dropped points five more times in the 11 games that followed, including an 88th-minute equaliser against Madrid and a 1-0 loss at Sevilla.

In the meantime Madrid and Barcelona recovered while silently, almost unnoticed, Sevilla moved into position. Madrid are unbeaten since that loss to Levante, 14 games. Barcelona went 19 without defeat until last week when they lost 2-1 to Granada– four days after Atlético had been beaten at Athletic and thus just when they could have gone top for the first time, destiny in their own hands. The following morning both Catalan sports dailies ran with “unforgiveable”.

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Koeman says that if Barcelona win their remaining games they will win the league, but that’s not necessarily true. Madrid’s head-to-head advantage means that a Barcelona victory over Atlético would perversely put Madrid in control, leaving them in a position where they could win all their remaining games and still take the title. They would probably need Sevilla’s help, in other words.

That may be presumptuous anyway. Gerard Piqué admitted that under normal circumstances you would back whoever came out of this weekend top to win the league, but not this time. All four have dropped points in the past fortnight alone. Sevilla lost on Monday, Barcelona the Thursday before, Atlético the Sunday before that and Madrid the previous evening. There may be life after Sunday still, yet this remains the moment. For Suárez especially, although there are many men who can take it from him, the prize is within reach.

Lionel Messi
Lionel Messi takes on the Atlético Madrid defence when Barcelona visited the Wanda Metropolitano in November. Photograph: Juanjo Martin/EPA

According to RAC1 radio station, Barcelona requested permission to organise a pre-match homage to Suárez. Despite the photo together on the pitch, Messi, who himself had wanted to leave, felt that his teammate and best mate did not get the farewell he deserved – “one of the most important players in the club’s history, kicked out.”

As for Suárez, he had said he would not celebrate a goal against Barcelona but he might “point to a certain place”, hinting at his anger at Josep Maria Bartomeu. With the club under a new president now, there will be no need for that and there is a willingness to build bridges under Joan Laporta. A tweet from the club called Suárez “a rival now, but a friend always”. Perhaps they hope too that a pre-game homage might blunt the edge of a footballer sometimes fuelled by fury, who Simeone said had been “vindicated” this season, “doing things no one expected of him”. The rewards that await are huge, revenge and redemption for all of them, Sevilla and Madrid too, at the end of a season no one thought would close like this, the tightest in decades.

But, then, as Diego Simeone said when he was reminded that he had never won at the Camp Nou as Atlético’s manager, “there’s a first time for everything in life.”


Sid Lowe

The GuardianTramp

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