All that and it comes to this. After 37 exhausting weeks, a title race full with so many turning points no one knows which way it’s facing any more, and every moment spent on edge, it all rests on a single evening and two locations, 195km apart; 3,330 minutes down, 90 to go. Time enough for anything to happen still, one more wild chapter in a story full of them.
At 6pm local time on Saturday a day earlier than advertised, Atlético Madrid kick off in Valladolid knowing a victory would make them champions. At the same time, Real Madrid play Villarreal at Valdebebas, aware that the slightest slip from Atlético would allow them to reclaim the title with a win – the city rivals’ head-to-head record means if the teams finish level they would emerge victorious.
Real face Villarreal, whose manager Unai Emery admitted having “an eye on Manchester United” and will rotate heavily, despite the league bringing these games forward to give them more time before the Europa League final. Atlético play a club, owned by Ronaldo Nazário, who are fighting for survival and who need to win, Huesca to lose and Elche not to win to stay up.
All of which seems simple enough, but this season nothing ever is, down to the fact it has reached this point at all. Zinedine Zidane and Diego Simeone always said it would go to the very last day, and it turned out they were right, but few imagined this.
When Zidane demanded the right for his team to compete for the title at the start of February, he did so because it angered him that most thought they had not and would not. The league was already beyond them. When Simeone kept saying the race for the title would go to the wire, it was for the opposite reason: a 10-point lead with a game in hand in January was no guarantee and should not be an obligation, a source of pressure. Real and Barcelona would be back: stronger, richer clubs. Nor should it diminish the enormity of their achievement if they held on to first place, theirs since week 12.
Atlético dropped as many points in 12 February days as in the whole season until then, four matches costing them as much as the previous 19. The lead remained significant but was slipping. Atlético then dominated Real in the derby but conceded an 89th-minute Karim Benzema equaliser, Zidane’s side let off again and still in the hunt. That was part of a run in which Simeone’s team dropped points four more times in seven games. As Simeone predicted, Real and Barcelona were ever closer. So, unexpectedly, were Sevilla.
On a Sunday night at the end of April, it seemed a historic opportunity had definitively gone, an even more historic fatalism taking its place. Atlético lost to an 86th-minute header from Athletic Bilbao’s Iñigo Martínez. They were still top, the first of four teams within three points, but although they been there for more than four months no one expected them to be there for four more days. They were two points ahead of Real and Barcelona, who had a game in hand against Granada the following Thursday.
Win and Barcelona would be top, and no one doubted they would. Atlético were slowing to a standstill whereas Ronald Koeman’s side had lost one in 22 – to Real Madrid – and had just taken “a big step towards the title” with a win at Villarreal, according to their coach. They had their fate in their own hands. Real were there too, unbeaten in 12.
After the Athletic defeat Simeone said the “mentally strongest” team would take the title. Asked whether that was his team, he replied: “I won’t know until I see it.”
Many feared they could see already. Former Atlético striker Kiko, Simeone’s teammate when they won the double in 1996, described it as “psychologically worrying”. This was so very Atlético: El Pupas, the jinxed one, the club making a virtue of suffering, subjected to the cruellest of defeats. If anyone could blow this, it was they. It was all happening again.
One man who didn’t entirely agree was Atlético’s captain, the appropriately named Koke Resurrección. “We’re pissed off,” he admitted. “But we can win the last five games.”
His face seemed to tell a different story, this a message for public consumption, but he genuinely thought so. He sent a voice message to a friend, which was leaked, in which he goes over the club’s recent past, how they overcame adversity to win the Copa del Rey at the Bernabéu in 2013, how they resisted to win the league in 2014, and how they will do the same now.
“We’re fucking Atleti, mate,” it ran. “We’re never going to have anything easy. That’s the club we are: we pull it out the bag when it’s hardest.”
Somehow, he was right. Somehow, they came through. Barcelona lost to Granada, leaving Atlético top. Real had the chance to climb above them but drew with Sevilla, leaving them top. Atlético beat Elche 1-0, a last-minute penalty hitting Jan Oblak’s post; drew 0-0 with Barcelona, Leo Messi’s late free-kick flying just wide; defeated Real Sociedad 2-1, desperately hanging on in the final, agonising minutes; and overcame Osasuna 2-1, with goals in the 82nd and 88th minutes, pandemonium breaking out, Luis Suárez disappearing under a pile of a bodies.
Still they were top, above the rest going into the final Saturday. “No one believes in us and that’s when we’re at our best,” Koke’s message had said. “We’re going to win this league.” It is easy now: win and become champions. But then as the Atlético captain put it and as this season has shown, “the easier it is, the worse it is”.