For one brief moment the goal at the north end of the Wanda Metropolitano was left wide open and so was the title race. Thirty-nine seconds the sequence took start to finish, from Atlético Madrid grasping at an unlikely source of hope to everyone else doing the same. At the end of it, Diego Simeone slumped into his seat, defeated at home for the first time in a year, his grip on the league loosened. To his left, Levante’s players leapt about. In an old convent on the banks of the Pisuerga river, so did Real Madrid’s. In Barcelona they could celebrate too, if not for long. And in Seville, but no one said that. In four days, everything had changed.
The scoreboard in the stadium had stopped, because footballers can’t be trusted to know how much time is left, but they knew it wasn’t much. The clock said 93.34 had gone on Atlético’s second meeting with Levante in a week and, having drawn 1-1 on Wednesday, on Saturday they were trailing 1-0 to an early José Luis Morales goal and time was running out. The board had gone up showing five additional minutes and Atlético had won a corner, one last chance, when Simeone – not so much standing on the touchline now as running along the right wing – shouted for goalkeeper Jan Oblak to go up. And so, unsure at first, he set off.
On 93.45, the corner was swung in. Inside the six-yard box, Dani Gómez put his arms around Oblak’s waist and his body on his back, tumbling on top of him. The corner was cleared, but only to Marcos Llorente who tried to clip it back in. There, on the edge of the area, Jorge De Frutos headed clear and set off after it. It was 94.04 and suddenly he was up and running, Oblak chasing after him, destined never to get there. Crossing halfway, way out on the far touchline, on 94.09 De Frutos hit it. The ball travelled alone, watched from a distance as it bent towards an empty end, no fans and no goalkeeper, slowly rolling over the line on 94.13.
It was over, time for just two touches before the final whistle went. Levante had beaten Atlético Madrid 2-0, costing them five points in a single week. As the players left the pitch, Renan Lodi sat on the grass on his own wondering what had happened. In four days against a single side, Atlético had dropped as many points as in the previous 126. In 12, they had dropped as many as in the rest of their season so far. From 50 of a possible 57, to just five from four games. By Saturday night, the team that had been 10 points clear at the start of February, not just favourites but virtual champions, led the league by just three.
“The league is on fire!” ran the cover of AS the following morning. El Mundo Deportivo and Sport turned up in the same dress again, both going with that old favourite, the Spanish “Game On!”: Hay Liga. Literally, it means there is league and there certainly is, just maybe not for them after Barcelona drew 1-1 with Cádiz that afternoon, leaving them eight points behind.
“The good thing is that we’re creating a lot of chances,” Lucas Torreira said. “The ball just didn’t want to go in,” Geoffrey Kondogbia insisted, and not without reason. He had failed to clear on Levante’s opening goal, allowing Morales to score with a fairly inoffensive shot that took two lucky deflections on its way past Oblak. Atlético had been slow in the first half, João Félix sending their only real chance into the 23rd row. “Flat,” Simeone called it. In the second, though, the Portuguese had two more opportunities from six yards, Luis Suárez hit a post and Atlético had a goal disallowed. Dani Cárdenas, Levante’s back-up goalkeeper, saved everything else, including one superb late stop from Thomas Lemar.
Fortune hadn’t exactly favoured them. In fact, of the top three this weekend, Atlético probably produced the best performance and lost, with Barcelona drawing and Madrid edging to a 1-0 win in Valladolid. In total, they had racked up 28 shots. It is a recurring theme recently. Four days earlier, against the same opposition with a different keeper it was 14, Ángel Correa somehow missing an open goal from six yards. Two games, four days, 42 shots, 18 on target and they had scored a single goal and collected a point. Against Celta nine days before that, they had been caught out by a last-minute equaliser.
And yet something has changed and there are reasons. They’ve been hit by suspensions, injury and Covid. This weekend, João Félix, Lemar and Moussa Dembélé were back from coronavirus and José María Giménez back from injury, but he was then withdrawn again and they were still without Yannick Carrasco, Sime Vrsaljko, Stefan Savić and Saúl Ñíguez. The defence has had to change almost every week. And the absence of Kieran Trippier has had a huge impact: there’s a reason he played every minute until his ban and immediately returned for one game when it was briefly put on hold. Five different players have occupied his place and none convince. The impact on Llorente in particular has been profound – and he is the best player.
“There is no excuse and I won’t look for any,” Simeone insisted. “There are obstacles and difficulties for everyone, not just Atlético. The teams that deal with that best will have the best chance. And it is up to us coaches to give the players the tools they need to find solutions.”
Right now, they’re not finding them. Koke had already warned that Atlético were conceding goals too easily. “Again we let in goals we shouldn’t when clean sheets used to be something that characterised us,” Mario Hermoso said. They’ve conceded seven weeks running when they had never even gone six under Simeone before. In week 16 of this season, they had let in just six goals; in the seven weeks since they’ve let in a further 10. They hadn’t trailed even for a minute until the derby; they’ve now gone behind in five of the last seven. And early too: after 15 minutes against Madrid, 12 against Eibar, 11 against Valencia, 13 against Celta, 17 and 30 against Levante.
Still they kept winning, but the question even then was: for how long? If they have been unlucky over the last 12 days, perhaps that was due. It wouldn’t be fair to say that Atlético were getting away with it before – far from it – but the margins were fine. Since the turn of the year, they had beaten Alavés 2-1 with a last-minute winner, Eibar 2-1 with a last-minute winner, and Granada 2-1 with a deflected shot from Ángel Correa 15 minutes from time. Too often they were chasing and while they invariably turned it round – deservedly so – there was no rest, no game to ease through, no break mentally or physically. A toll was taken and having games in hand – the totals too often totted up in advance as if they didn’t have to be earned – doesn’t always help, the calendar ever more compressed.
Walk the line and some times you’ll fall. Atlético’s effectiveness was extraordinary; in part this run of results could be seen as little more than a regression to the mean. No one expected a collapse – and this is not one, a solitary loss in 12 – but a reduction in the rate at which they racked up points was always likely. They had been on target for 100, and that was never going to be maintained. Sometimes, it doesn’t really have a reason at all, or at least not a simple one. Serendipity rarely satisfies anyone as an explanation, but that doesn’t make it less real, both in good times and bad.
Here, Suárez may be the best example. He had scored 16 goals from 22 shots on target, turning draws into the victories that took Atlético clear. Now that has been turned upside down. Over the last three games he has taken 13 shots, seven on target, hit the post, the bar, watched Rui Silva, Aitor Fernández and Dani Cárdenas make extraordinary saves, and not scored. If at times it had felt like he did nothing except decide games before (as if that was easy), against Granada and Levante twice he has done it all, emerging almost as a No 10, but not ultimately determined the outcome.
This is hardly a crisis but it is an opportunity, the league unexpectedly opening up before the rest like Oblak’s goal. Atlético still have a three-point lead over Real Madrid with a game in hand, they lead Barcelona by eight, and they’re 10 above Sevilla, who play on Monday night. They face Villarreal away next week and then it’s the derby. There’s league all right, and a hell of a fight. “Nobody said it was easy; if it was easy, it would be over already,” Mario Hermoso said. “It’s a long run and we’re ready.”
Every point counts, which is why Simeone shouted for Oblak to head south as the final seconds slipped away on Saturday. Instead, the ball rolled into an open net at the other end but Atlético’s manager rolled with it, applying a smile and a little reverse psychology. “I’ve been telling the players that the object is important and it’s wonderful if you can get there but the journey is more important,” he said. “There are all sorts of obstacles along the route, good moments, bad ones, good luck and bad luck, good play and bad, and if you get there you enjoy it. But what you enjoy most, what really matters is travelling that path.”
And with that he winked and walked off.