It was half past 10 on 6 April, still six weeks and seven matches from the end of the season, when Barcelona’s fans started to sing about being champions and no one thought it particularly presumptuous. A minute earlier, Luis Suárez had scored the first, skidded on his knees across the grass waving his shirt around his wrist and was engulfed by his teammates, just lying there when he was at last let loose, taking it all in, top held in his outstretched hand. Now, 90 seconds later, a sudden snap of Leo Messi’s ankle and they’d scored again, which was when “campeones, oé, oé, oé” ran round the Camp Nou: 2-0, game over. League over, too.
“Suárez and Messi bring down the curtain,” said the front of AS; they “turned out the lights”, its match report said. “Champion,” declared the cover of El Mundo Deportivo. “Another league! Now for the Champions League,” cheered Sport. And Marca led on Karim Benzema, who’d scored two against Eibar. A box alongside admitted: “Another league in their pocket.” Diego Simeone had said before the game that Atlético had to beat Barcelona to have any chance of winning the league, and they hadn’t. After it, he said: “We’ll come back next year, compete, and hopefully get a bit closer.” Zinedine Zidane had already announced, six days earlier: “We’re not going to win anything this season.”
“We haven’t won anything yet,” Ernesto Valverde said and there was no celebration, no lap of honour, no cava, but everyone agreed that they will. “We’re a bit closer, but there are still 21 points in play,” Barcelona’s manager added, and they need only 10 of them. With seven games to go, they lead Atlético by 11 and the head-to-head record and Real Madrid by 12 and head-to-head. Getafe, in fourth, are 23 points behind. “If we don’t win the league now, it’s our fault,” Sergi Roberto said, “something very bad would have to happen.”
Barcelona v Atlético, first v second, was set up as the title decider, a last chance and it was tempting to open with this: Atlético Madrid’s hopes of winning the league vanished the moment Diego Costa shat on the referee’s prostitute mother. The game wasn’t even half an hour in when Arthur challenged Costa, who fell but got up fast, leaping to his feet furious when the foul wasn’t given. According to the referee, Jesús Gil Manzano, Costa shouted: “Me cago en tu puta madre” twice, a phrase that roughly translates as “I shit on your prostitute/fucking mother”. According to Costa, meanwhile, he said: “I shit on my prostitute/fucking mother.” Which makes all the difference.
On radio and TV, in papers and online, the debate began: my mother or yours? They debated, too, whether the treatment was the same with others, Suárez and Sergio Ramos offered up as examples of men who get away with it. What they didn’t really debate much was that it changed everything. Gil Manzano whipped out a red card and was surrounded by players. Costa pleaded that he had referred to his mum, not yours, but it didn’t make any difference. In the end he walked, shooting an(other) insult as he went and escorted off by Gerard Piqué, whispering to him that he shouldn’t make it worse. It was bad enough already: “Costa’s verbal incontinence cost Atlético the league,” one headline had it.
But it hadn’t, not really, and Simeone avoided saying it had. There is no way of knowing how the game would play out with 11 and until the last five minutes Barcelona’s best two chances – Jordi Alba’s shot against the post and Jan Oblak’s superb save from Philippe Coutinho – had come before the red card. They took 21 shots, 10 on target. And Oblak made eight saves, four of them superb, El Mundo likening him to Lev Yashin. Barcelona are not a solitary point ahead of Atlético, they lead by 11. If they had lost, they’d still be five ahead; maybe calling this a decider was a little like wishful thinking, Hay Liga and all that: everyone wants there to be league, even when maybe there’s isn’t any.
There have been late goals and lucky ones. Villarreal four days ago, for a start. Barcelona have scored almost 31% of their goals in the last quarter of an hour. But that’s neither entirely chance, nor does it come in isolation. And take away all of those goals and they’d still have more than anyone else in La Liga. Only Atlético have more clean sheets. If they have not always convinced entirely, they have won again and again. If they haven’t always convinced entirely, maybe that’s because sometimes people take too much convincing, more about us than them. And if they haven’t, who has?
Sometimes you can strip it down to something simple, even if you forget the figures and just watch them play: Barcelona are better than the rest, again.
Atlético have lost five times this season, Madrid have lost nine. Barcelona have lost fewer than that in the past three seasons put together. Their lead over Atletico across the past two seasons is 25 points; it’s 30 over Madrid, taking them towards an eighth title in 11 seasons. Of those three failures there’s only one, in 2011-12, in which they didn’t make it to the final day with a chance. And while Europe clearly plays a part, Madrid’s astonishing success eclipsing everything, maybe that’s the thing, the level against which they’re being measured, the nostalgia through which they’re judged: Suárez insisted that Saturday night showed how hard it is to win the league, but domestic dominance diminishes that, some of the appreciation lost.
And so it is not dramatic but it is done. In brackets on the front of El Mundo Deportivo, alongside the “champion”, and the picture of Suárez lying there, spent, limbs spread across the grass, it read: “All that’s missing is the date.” It could yet be Sant Jordi’s – day of books, roses and another league title.
• In three months without Iago Aspas, Celta de Vigo won once, drew once and lost 10 times, slipping from ninth to 18th, four points from survival. In the three games in a week since then, still not fully fit and entirely exhausted, he has now:
- Scored twice to bring Celta back from 2-0 down to win 3-2 against Villarreal, another team in relegation trouble, taken off later than planned because they needed him so desperately, sitting there on the bench and sobbing.
- Scored one and made one to go 2-0 up against Huesca, another team in relegation trouble and been on the point of exhaustion and removal only to see Huesca score three in 10 minutes to take the lead, his manager asking him to stay on. So he did, making the equaliser with his last touch.
- Scored two to take Celta from 1-0 down against Real Sociedad to 2-1, before Maxi added a third in the last minute, taking Celta two points clear of the relegation zone. The first was a penalty, the second a header where he threw himself in, crashed into the post, whipped off his shirt, and aquaplaned across the pitch on his knees screaming at supporters, the greatest idol they or anybody had ever seen. The fan who just happens to be the finest footballer in their history.
“I used to hate him,” said Celta’s manager, Fran Escribá. “Now I love him.”
• “We needed a result like that,” Rayo Vallecano’s Paco Jémez said and, boy, was he right. They hadn’t won in 15 and even taking the lead against Valencia – unbeaten in 17 didn’t fill them with confidence. After all, they had led in their last four games, including against Barcelona, and in not won any of them. This time, though, they did find a way through, Mario Suárez adding a second late on. They’re still in the relegation zone, but safety is only three points away now. “I hope this is the first step; we were bleeding and we had to improve,” Jémez said.
• For Villarreal, there was something to hold on to as well: a last-minute penalty against Betis. But Santi Cazorla, of all people, missed it. He hit the shot right down the middle and, for once, the goalkeeper didn’t dive: Pau didn’t just save it, he caught it, denying Villarreal the chance to pull out of the relegation zone. The battle at the bottom is very tight.
• “I’ve always said that my red blood boils. Well, it turns out that my white blood is trying to compete – I have chronic leukaemia,” Sevilla’s manager, Joaquín Caparrós, announced while insisting that he needs no treatment and will carry on as normal. Fuerza!
• We have to do better for the people who have come out in the cold, Zinedine Zidane told his players at half-time. There weren’t that many of them – there were 30,000 empty seats at the Bernabéu – to see a 2-1 win against Eibar. “It’s not easy to play when you’ve got nothing to play for,” Zidane said. These last few weeks are looking like being long and largely irrelevant ones.
• Leganés did it again: three games in a week, and all of them with last-minute goals – this time it was a late, late equaliser against Alavés.