The last vessel from Spain's Champions League armada docked back at home on Thursday, with some heavy shelling to its hull. Real Madrid, eliminated 3-1 on aggregate by Chelsea in their semi-final, know they were spared an even bigger scoreline. "They were better than us," said Madrid head coach Zinedine Zidane.
Chelsea were better than Atletico Madrid over two legs at the last 16 stage, too. Chelsea beat Sevilla 4-0 in the tail-end of the group stage in what has been a forceful romp through Iberia for the London club on the way to a European Cup final that, for the the third year running, features no La Liga team. That is a sobering fact for Spanish football, which supplied every Champions League winner between 2014 and 2018.
What Spain can boast, though, is the most compelling domestic title-race of Europe’s major leagues. With four matchdays left, any one of four clubs could finish the season top, and, in a happy coincidence of the fixture list, the weekend ahead is a double D-Day.
On Saturday, leaders Atletico Madrid go to third-placed Barcelona. On Sunday second-placed Real Madrid host fourth-placed Sevilla. Sevilla, six points shy of Atletico, are the only team in the quartet who cannot aspire to be top by the end of the weekend, although they are still in the race.
The suspense is heightened by the signs of nerves. Sevilla’s run of five victories came to an end on Monday with defeat to Athletic Bilbao, who had just beaten Atletico. Barcelona have conceded nine goals in their last five Liga contests.
The bruises carried back from London by Zidane’s Madrid add another dimension to the joust. The defending Spanish champions suffered a first defeat in 19 matches in their second leg against Chelsea on an evening that showed Madrid’s growing fatigue – they were outrun by a full seven kilometres overall by Chelsea’s players – and an unhealthy reliance on senior men short of full fitness.
Sergio Ramos, the captain, was rushed back prematurely in the XI. Eden Hazard is patently way off peak form, his poor performance at Stamford Bridge only his second start since January. Ferland Mendy, another coming back from injury, is lacking his usual zip at left-back.
The shut-out in the semi-final also reminded that when Karim Benzema does not figure on the scoresheet, there are few ready alternatives. “We were short in a lot of areas,” Zidane said.
Chelsea v Real Madrid player ratings
Of the top three in La Liga, Madrid are the lowest scorers, behind even Atletico, whose reputation over the last decade has been built on eking out minimum winning margins and concentrating on their meanness at the back.
The Atletico formula, cultivated carefully by the longest-serving coach in elite European football, Diego Simeone, has yielded a Liga title before, in the tightest of circumstances.
The season was 2013-14, back when La Liga reigned supreme – the two Madrid clubs contested a Champions League final that year and Sevilla were winning the first of three successive Europa Leagues – and the title race was still being fought out between the trio, Atletico, Barcelona and Real Madrid until the penultimate matchday.
It remained a joust between Atletico and Barcelona until the last minute of the last fixture at Camp Nou, which finished in a 1-1 draw between Barca and Simeone’s bravehearts. Barcelona had needed a win to leapfrog Atletico; at the end of a sapping afternoon, Barcelona fans applauded their opponents, the new champions, and the only club to have broken the Barca-Real stranglehold on Liga titles in the last 16 seasons.
There are shades of that scenario in Saturday's confrontation, though there will be no spectators at Barca. One old friend, Luis Suarez, should be there, eight months after he was pushed out of Barcelona and snapped up by Simeone. Suarez’s 19 Liga goals for his new club are a major factor in Atletico’s topping the table, his close friendship with Barca’s Lionel Messi another highly-charged subtext to Saturday's battle for first place.
Atletico, two points ahead of Barcelona and Real Madrid, have wobbled in the last five games, dropping points in two of them. And Simeone has never overseen a win at Camp Nou. Ominous for the leaders? “At this stage in the last stretch, I look only at the positives, like Suarez being back from injury,” says Simeone. “We are in a healthy position in many ways. But it’s no longer the time for thinking. It’s the time for doing.”