Atlético suffer and survive on La Liga’s weekend of pressure games | Sid Lowe | Football

“Much worse issues have occurred,” Gerard Piqué mentioned and Diego Simeone knew he was proper. The Atlético Madrid supervisor has been by it earlier than – the worst factor in soccer in response to one of the boys who suffered it with him – and may very well be forgiven if he feared going by it once more, 100 horrible situations enjoying in his thoughts on Sunday evening. He had stood there, arms huge, smile wider, laughing when João Félix added to Stefan Savic’s opener to place his staff 2-0 up at Villarreal, however now stress tore at him. On the touchline on the Cerámica, so much to lose, Simeone leapt, shouted and spat and threw his arms about, unable to accept a second.

As Sunday’s match went into the ultimate quarter of an hour, possibilities appeared to reach quicker than time, and they have been all for Villarreal. Each time Samu Chukwueze turned inside, Simeone’s throat tightened. With each contact for Gerard Moreno, his pulse quickened. Carlos Bacca shot and he screamed. Álex Baena smashed a publish and he jumped like somebody had put a banger beneath him. Jan Oblak made an outstanding save and he clutched at his head. He despatched for reinforcements – Geoffrey Kondogbia for Luis Suárez, Lucas Torreira for Ángel Correira – and clung on. He crouched, stood, ran and pointed. He tore at his hair when Jaume Costa went shut, and nearly exploded when Dani Parejo was denied. He was doing his nut, mainly.

And when eventually the ultimate whistle went, Atlético surviving to win 2-0, the person who has now received as many games for the membership as anybody else ever, drawing degree with Luis Aragonés, set free a roar, clenched his fists and ran shouting down the line. With out slowing, he dashed through a hidden blue door within the stand on the western finish and into the makeshift dressing room beneath the seats. From the place there was quickly the sound of somebody hammering in opposition to steel panels and shouts of celebration. All of which could appear a bit excessive, however serves as an example how massive this win was. How massive the entire weekend was, the truth is.

You wouldn’t have guessed it, a man walking a dog and a couple pushing a pram about the only people around the bottom as a convey of automobiles made their approach alongside a slender, quiet street, Villarreal’s gamers arriving one after the other and already in their kit at a spot where the only fans are cardboard cut-outs. Or contained in the Sánchez Pizjuán, where the club’s anthem abruptly fell silent, somebody hurriedly urgent cease as a result of the sport was about to begin and the place Marc-André ter Stegen’s voice echoed round. And it won’t really feel prefer it on Monday evening at Valdebebas, a coaching floor the place the large stadium announcer retains asserting massive stadium issues to no person. However watching Simeone, it did: a glimpse that this was the weekend, the pressure higher than ever.


Atlético got here into it as leaders, three factors clear and with a recreation in hand nonetheless, certain. However that they had been prime for 11 weeks and favourites approach past that, just about been declared champions already, alternative redefined as obligation. Now out of the blue their lead was narrower than it had been since January, vulnerability out of the blue seen, and the league was extra alive than it had been for for much longer than that. Again then, with their match in opposition to Athletic postponed as a result of of the snow, that they had three matches in hand, nonetheless led by a degree, and had defeated Sevilla 2-0, making it 12 wins in 13. As for Madrid and Barcelona, they only weren’t excellent, their hopes already hole. Or so it goes.

Seven, seven, 10, seven and 5 factors clear firstly of the earlier 5 matchdays, Atlético got here into this weekend having been overwhelmed by Levante, having received only one in 4, and having dropped as many factors in 12 days as in the remaining of the season. That they had prolonged their run with no clear sheet to eight and used up all however one of their games in hand. That they had additionally simply been overwhelmed by Chelsea, previous doubts surfacing: about how good they are surely and additionally who they are surely. They arrived with only a three-point lead and that recreation in hand now not feeling like a assure, factors added prematurely as that they had been all season. Oh, and they knew that subsequent up was Actual Madrid.

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Nor was it only one staff behind them now, it was three: Madrid, Barcelona and Sevilla, all forged as contenders. And this weekend was first in opposition to sixth, second in opposition to fifth and third in opposition to fourth. It began with Sevilla-Barcelona on Saturday afternoon and ends with Actual Sociedad-Madrid on Monday evening. Between them got here Villarreal-Atlético. Which was even greater than the league positions prompt: solely Madrid and Barcelona have a greater file in opposition to Simeone’s Atlético than Villarreal, in opposition to whom he solely has a 35% win ratio; Atlético had not received there in 5 years, shedding 3 times; and by the point they set off for the east, Barcelona had overwhelmed Sevilla 2-0 on the Sánchez Pizjuán. Any margin had gone.

It wasn’t simply that Barcelona had received, both. It was that that they had truly received an enormous recreation and that that they had satisfied too, Sevilla midfielder Joan Jordan admitting the guests had been “snug”. A lot as Madrid have been kind of beginning to persuade, if solely within the odd approach they did on path to claiming final 12 months’s league title, profitable 4 in a row, three with out conceding. It was that Leo Messi is, nicely, Leo Messi: prime scorer now, he has scored in eight consecutive games. That the items seem like falling into place, domestically not less than. That they hadn’t misplaced in 15 league games and had received 9 of their final 10; that however for an absurd last-minute penalty in opposition to Cádiz, this win would have left them prime by the point Atlético kicked off in Villarreal.

Jan Oblak clears in front of a stand full of cardboard cutouts.

Jan Oblak clears in entrance of a stand full of cardboard cutouts.

“Barcelona are right here!” warned the entrance web page of El Mundo Deportivo. “Sure, we are able to!” cheered Sport. Marca and AS each declared the league to be on “purple alert.” Nevertheless it was Piqué who mentioned it finest. “Often once I come right here and I’ve a microphone in entrance of me, it’s one thing unhealthy,” he mentioned post-game, “however this time it’s a pleasure; as we speak I can say I’m very proud of the staff. We’ve proven that this staff could be very, very alive. 2021 has given us causes to be assured. No, the state of affairs isn’t good however we hope to attain one thing. Is there a title race? After all there may be. A lot worse issues have occurred.”

Significantly when you understand it may. “Most pressure,” mentioned the headline on the entrance of AS on Sunday morning, helpfully, and that evening maybe it confirmed. In Simeone, actually.

Savic had opened the scoring halfway with a far-post header that went in off Pedraza – “I hope they provide it to me,” he mentioned just a little optimistically – however solely after a three-minute pantomime during which the linesman dominated it out for offside, VAR mentioned it was onside and appeared for one thing as a substitute, and each units of subs spent the time shouting “foul!” “purpose!” “foul!” “purpose!” João Félix, on as a sub at half-time, then scored an outstanding second, turning in direction of the touchline and, with no trace of a smile, muttered: “shut the fuck up”. And, other than one sensible save from Sergio Asenjo to disclaim Suárez, that was just about that.


Over two games in opposition to Levante, Atlético racked up 42 photographs and scored as soon as; right here they took simply six, and scored twice. With 64% of possession, Villarreal had taken 19, and despatched 22 balls into the field, two phrases dominating all the coverage afterwards: struggling and survival. At occasions the stress had been an excessive amount of however Atlético had made it to the ultimate whistle with a clear sheet for the primary time since that win over Sevilla and with Suárez avoiding the yellow that might have meant lacking the derby subsequent weekend.

Villarreal 0-2 Atlético, Granada 2-1 Elche, Cadiz 0-1 Betis, Celta Vigo 1-1 Valladolid, Getafe 3-0 Valencia, Alaves 0-1 Osasuna, Sevilla 0-2 Barcelona, Eibar 1-1 Huesca, Levante 1-1 Athletic Bilbao

“It’s all the time laborious right here,” Simeone mentioned. He appeared exhausted, face flushed, however he was completely satisfied, even the episode with João Félix failing to take the smile from his face. “You’ll must ask him,” he mentioned, taking the chance to ship a reminder to his participant. “Or ask me subsequent time after I’ve spoken to him – and then I’ll determine whether or not or to not let you know. However I like a participant who rebels, a participant with pleasure, who reacts in tough moments, when he has been a very long time with no purpose. He hasn’t scored for some time; I don’t know when. He wanted it, the staff wanted it; he wants it, the staff wants it. Rebels? Give them to me.”

It was late, his gamers had gone, dashing to the hotel for a shower and dinner earlier than starting the journey dwelling. A mini-bus was ready outdoors for him. He may afford to smile, if just for a short while: his staff have been 5 factors clear, time for another person to really feel the pressure. Barcelona had received, Atlético had received, now Madrid needed to do the identical. “I’d be mendacity if I mentioned I received’t watch it,” Simeone grinned. “It’s a 9 o’clock kick-off, time, a pleasant recreation, and I like soccer.”

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