Atlético Madrid, Barcelona and Real Madrid make La Liga a tight race | Sid Lowe

Spain's top three sides all won at the weekend to guarantee La Liga one of the most exciting finishes for years

It was October 1991 and Irene Villa was on her way to school when the ETA car bomb exploded. Her mum lost an arm and a leg and she lost three fingers on one hand and both her legs, arriving at hospital in a coma. At one point, her father suggested to doctors that it would be better not to fight to save her; her life, if she had one, would not be worth living. She was 12. Now she's 35, a journalist, speaker and Paralympic skier, Spanish champion in the adapted slalom, even though she damaged a vertebrae in one crash. "Life can knock you down but you have to get up after every fall," she wrote in one of her books. "Never stop fighting."

This weekend Villa gave another talk. "I haven't been so moved in years," said Filipe Luís, one of the men in the audience. Like the rest of the men there, Filipe Luís plays for Atlético Madrid, whose manager Diego Simeone had invited Villa to speak at the team hotel, and the following day they went back to the top of the table following a 2-1 victory. Nothing unusual there, after all, Atlético have spent six weeks at the top this season and they were there at the start of the weekend too; they had won 23 of their 30 games. But this win was different. It was Atlético's 36th of the season, for a start – their highest ever total.

Newspaper AS called it D-Day. As Saturdays go it was pretty Super. Three points separated the top three and this was an opportunity for Real Madrid, in third, to draw level again; this was a real threat to Atlético's leadership. A three-way tie didn't just appear possible, it appeared likely. Real Madrid played Rayo Vallecano at home at 10pm. Barcelona travelled to rivals Espanyol at 4pm. And between them, Atlético went to San Mamés to play fourth-placed Athletic Bilbao. For Barcelona and Atlético these were probably the hardest games left until they meet each other on the final day. A win for Madrid, a draw for Barcelona and a loss for Atlético and all three teams would be on 73 points.

By the time Atlético kicked off, Barcelona had won at Cornellá-El Prat, piling even greater pressure on Simeone's side. It finished 1-0 with a questionable penalty scored by Leo Messi – Barcelona's last three goals are Messi penalties. Meanwhile no one really doubted that Real Madrid would defeat Rayo and it finished 5-0. San Mamés was packed and it was raining, the way it's supposed to, the way Athletic like it. Only one visiting team had won there all season in the league and after six minutes Athletic were 1-0 up, Iker Muniaín lifting the ball over Thibault Courtois after the defence was caught out by a startlingly simple ball over the top. Barcelona couldn't win at San Mamés, nor could Real Madrid, and Atlético appeared to be heading the same way. They had lost there 3-0 in each of the last two seasons; now they were trailing almost before they'd started.

But then Diego Costa started. Costa is probably the most decisive player in Spain this season, scorer of 25 goals, spread across 19 different games, the man for whom every match is a battle and every aimless punt a pass, every lost cause a challenge. Rarely aesthetic but invariably effective: clever and relentless, eyes narrowing, brow expanding, arms extending and chest rising, outnumbered but taking them all on, pursuing defenders down dark alleyways and sprinting into space either side of the centre backs or racing right through the middle like a souped-up dodgem car, opponents bouncing off him. Asked if Costa could be as good as some of Atlético's great strikers, Jabo Irureta, winner of two league titles, one cup, one Intercontinental and a European Cup runner-up with the club, replied: "He could be better."

Here, you could see why. AS gave him four marks out of three and likened him to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid facing the Bolivian army: "this was not a match, it was an action movie, and a brilliant one," wrote Iñako Díaz-Guerra. "Costa was an epic hero." "He's our leader and he doesn't even know it," the midfielder Tiago said; "he's contagious," Simeone added. Every time Costa set off, and he set off often, Atlético grew, the team followed, as if dragged forward by him. "Every time he set off, Athletic seemed terrified; all the more so without their injured captain Carlos Gurpegui. You almost expected Mikel San José to shout "mercy" at any moment, pleading for clemency. El País described it as "a Formula 1 car against a tractor."

There were chances at both ends, the ball swinging into the area from each side and spearing through the middle. Athletic had 10 shots, Atlético seven. They also had Koke and when they really needed him, they had Courtois too: the Belgian made an astonishing late save as the visitors held on. Most of all, though, Atlético had Costa. Costa ran through but Gorka Iraizoz saved. Costa turned and escaped, heading right to left then cutting his shot back left to right to score the equaliser. Costa shot just wide. Twice. Costa was brought down for a clear penalty, not given. And Costa escaped, space opening before him, only to be fouled by Aymeric Laporte. Red card. He was in the middle of it all. "Costa ate the lions. Bestial," wrote newspaper Marca. "We could not stop Costa, that's the truth," admitted Athletic manager Ernesto Valverde.

Costa scored the first after 22 minutes and was involved in the second, made and finished by Koke in the 55th. In the last minute, he was removed, exhausted and holding his groin. He'd been booted and had booted back; now he was empty but his work was done. His goal was his 25th league goal this season, the 100th of his career and this was the fifth game in a row in which he'd scored. It was a big goal. Atlético Madrid had become the first team to win at the new San Mamés, beating Athletic in the Copa del Rey. Now they had become the first team to win there twice. Atlético have faced Real Madrid twice this season and are unbeaten; they have faced Barcelona three times and are unbeaten; they have faced Athletic four times and have won every game.

Every week you wonder if this is the week that Atlético will slip away; every week you wonder if they might finally give up; and every week they refuse. In principle, this was their greatest remaining obstacle and they overcame it. Atlético are top, a point ahead of Barcelona and three ahead of Real Madrid, with seven games to go. Looking at their fixtures – Villarreal (h), Getafe (a), Elche (h), Valencia (a), Levante (a), Málaga (h) – it's not impossible for them to win every game until they face Barcelona on the final day. Simeone continues to resist talk of the title but no one doubts they can win the league now: this victory, perhaps more than any other, made that clear. One newspaper asked who would win the league. Atlético came bottom still but nothing separates the teams: 32.41% said Atlético, 34.81% Barcelona and 32.78% Madrid.

"This win was a first on the desk," Courtois said.

• 10: Print "Getafe won".

20: Go to 10.

Press return.

Getafe won.

Getafe won.

Getafe won.

Getafe won.

Getafe won.

Getafe won.

Getafe won.....

Yes, really. 15 matches and four months later, Getafe won a match. For the first time since November 29, they picked up all three points – thanks to a 3-1 win at Valencia. Before the game, coach Cosmin Contra had insisted: "anyone who is not prepared to come off the pitch at Mestalla with his nose bleeding might as well not board the team bus." Pedro León almost took him literally: the Getafe winger scored the third late on and celebrated by blowing kisses to the Valencia fans, prompting a mass confrontation on the pitch and on the touchline which started with Jérémy Mathieu pursuing León, pushing him over and shoving him in the face twice. Afterwards León apologised.

At the full-time whistle, Contra gathered his players in the middle of the pitch and told them that he was proud of them, which is more than Pizzi could say about a Valencia side who are ambling towards the end, disconnected and adrift. "This is the path to follow," Contra said. Asked about his attitude afterwards Contra insisted that he had "not laughed in anyone's face" and asked: "why shouldn't we be happy? Why shouldn't we celebrate when we have finally won for the first time in four months?" He added: "I hope people realise that there is real tension and a lot at stake. We shake hands at the end of the game and that's it. This is a huge victory, an intake of oxygen for us. We have taken a small step forward but there is still a lot to do."

The victory pulls Getafe back out of the relegation zone. It is really tightening up at the bottom. The teams in 19th and 18th won, the teams in 17th and 15th drew, and the teams in 16th and 13th lost. Málaga, in 14th, play bottom-placed Betis on Monday night. Betis are eight points from safety and probably doomed but only three points separate the seven points above them, with Granada, who play tonight, just one point above that. The bottom looks like this: Betis 22, Osasuna 30, Almería 30, Valladolid 30, Getafe 31, Elche 32, Málaga 32, Rayo 33, Granada 34. Next week: Almería-Osasuna, Elche-Getafe, Málaga-Granada.

Week 31 results:

Espanyol 0-1 Barcelona, Celta 1-0 Sevilla, Athletic 1-2 Atlético, Real Madrid 5-0 Rayo, Valladolid 1-0 Almería, Osasuna 1-1 Real Sociedad, Villarreal 1-1 Elche, Valencia 1-3 Getafe

Monday night: Granada-Levante, Betis-Málaga

La Liga table


Sid Lowe

The GuardianTramp

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