Atletico Madrid masters of their destiny as La Liga title race enters decisive stretch

Diego Simeone's team could be crowned champions on Sunday when they face Osasuna

Diego Simeone planned to be nowhere near his television, nor his smartphone on Thursday. Or so he promised himself. “If I was anxious and stressed last week, I’m even more so now,” said the Atletico Madrid head coach after his latest ride on the rollercoaster that is La Liga’s title race.

The result of the Granada-Real Madrid match would reach him soon enough, he reasoned, without having to live every moment of it. Besides, it need not disturb Atletico’s focus.

They are top and have the destiny of the championship, a prize they last held in 2014, in their own hands. Wednesday night’s 2-1 victory over Real Sociedad ensured that – even if over the 90 minutes Simeone sensed some of the jitters that keep afflicting his league-leaders.

The penultimate day of a thriving run-in is Sunday. Outside Atletico’s Metropolitano stadium for the visit of Osasuna, there will again be fans gathered, projecting their chants and songs over the walls of an arena that is new enough that it has yet to celebrate a Liga triumph for its tenants. And, being so modern, has seemed especially echoey through this season of crowdless football.

Naturally, Simeone wishes those supporters were inside. One of the features of his long stint as head coach – coming up to ten years – has been the communion he, a touchline jack-in-the-box, has developed with the fans. He misses that energy.

“Football needs people,” said Simeone on Wednesday, after he saw his players’ dynamism drop off in the later stages of a game for the second time in five days. “Now that things are opening up again, we ought to be looking at how to make it happen in football.”

Some stadiums in Spain will this month allow limited numbers of fans in, depending on the relevant regional Covid-19 regulations. But the matches which count towards the title race will all be followed by supporters from distance.

An audible distance, Simeone hopes, as long as the Atletico loyalists who shout from outside the Metropolitano observe health protocols. “To start the game hearing our people sing from afar is emotional,” said the head coach.

Atletico’s strong starts to matches are important. Revved-up first-halves have helped keep Atletico top of the table. At Barcelona at the weekend, they owned the opening 45 minutes, kept at bay by some sharp goalkeeping from Barca’s Marc-Andre ter Stegen. Three days later, against Real Sociedad, they were 2-0 up within the first half-hour.

But this has not been a smooth approach to the title for Simeone’s men. Had Barcelona’s Ousmane Dembele, joining a forceful Barca comeback in the second-half, not headed wastefully over the bar in the closing stages, Atletico would have been deposed at the summit. Having begun with such authority against Real Sociedad, Simeone ended the night counting down the seconds, Igor Zubeldia narrowing the scoreline eight minutes from full-time.

“Two-nil turns into 2-1 and you start to feel the butterflies in your stomach,” admitted Simeone. “There is tiredness, there is anxiety. It’s not easy but then this has been a hard year for every team.”

Yet not many have exhibited the chronic effects of pressure and fatigue like Atletico. At the beginning of February they were 11 points clear at the top.

They have led the table after 24 matchdays of the 36 played, but the pattern of their last two games, shifting from bullish Atletico into anxious Atletico tells the story, in miniature, of their whole league season. Their first 20 matches of the campaign included just one loss and two draws. In the last eight games they have dropped 10 points.

In these tense times, Simeone looks to old allies, those who have been with him longest on the journey from flakey, brittle underachievers to a club capable of breaking the shared Barca and Real Madrid stranglehold on the Spanish title. Men like captain, Koke, who played his 500th Atletico match on Wednesday, a milestone marked with an unusual degree of emotion by his coach.

“I’m so proud of him,” said Simeone. “When I came in, he was about to leave to join Malaga, and I said to him, ‘Listen, I have no arguments yet to offer you on why should have faith in me, but I want you to stay.’” Two agonising, lost Champions League finals, two Europa Leagues triumph and one league title later, Koke is two games away from being the skipper who is handed the Liga trophy.

Published: May 14, 2021 11:25 AM

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