Atlético’s ‘great season’ sticks in throat as La Liga struggles for storylines | Sid Lowe

“Football is so capricious that when Sunday comes maybe he’ll make us happy,” Javi Rey said. For the first time ever, Club Deportivo Arenteiro, the team from O Carballiño that were playing in the Galician regional league six years ago that he now manages, were heading to Riazor, twice the size of their town, to face Deportivo de La Coruña.

Without a goalkeeper. Diego Garcia and Manu Figueroa were injured; Pablo Brea is on loan from their opponents, who had applied one of those clauses; and the emergency signing, Pablo Picon, fell through, leaving them no choice but to stick the goalie coach in nets, an unexpected hero waiting to happen.

Diego Rivas was born in Coruña province and dreamed of going in goal at Riazor, if not like this, given the chance after it was supposed to be all over. He played for Deportivo’s B team at the start of his career, Lugo, Eibar and Auckland City among almost a dozen clubs he joined before ending it with promotion at nearby Racing Ferrol. A fan still, he had cried when Depor were relegated. Now, a year after retiring, embarking on a new career in coaching, he was registered as a squad member until the season’s end, going to the place where he always wanted to play, in front of 28,293 people. Against the league leaders who had won five in a row, unbeaten in 15.

So guess who turned in a man-of-the-match performance, keeping his team in it despite going 2-0 down and then went up for a 94th-minute corner and scored the equaliser this weekend? What happened next will shock you. Actually, it really might. Because, no, for all the build up, it wasn’t Rivas. Not exactly – that would be silly even for football – but very nearly. In the last minute he did go up and the ball did drop for him, but his shot was sliced, becoming the perfect assist instead, another Deportivo academy product, Manuel Romay, there to score the equaliser, holding up apologetic hands as everyone piled on. He had made them happy, alright.

This was weird enough, a wonderful outlier on a weekend where up in the first division it felt like what had to happen happened, a kind of inevitability to it all. A finality too, the many matches that might have been massive stuck on might have, leaving a sense that everything’s done with five weeks to spare.

This was the week when Real Madrid were Real Madrid even when they weren’t, a starting XI that included Éder Militão, Brahim Díaz, Joselu Mato, Dani Ceballos, Fran García, Kepa Arrizabalaga and Arder Güler, beating Real Sociedad 1-0 with the latter getting the goal. That keeps them 13 points clear at the top, the title that has been virtually theirs since beating Girona and very much theirs since last week’s clásico a step closer. The week in which the Seville derby was a draw – that’s four in a row now – Alavés got on with a third consecutive home win, Luis García giving the team that have made unexpectedly short work of survival four days off so long as they “don’t let it get messy”, and Las Palmas lost for a sixth consecutive week.

Girona’s players are heading for the Champions League after their 2-0 win at Las Palmas. Photograph: Quique Curbelo/EPA

Which was also the way it’s supposed to be. Las Palmas were beaten by Girona, leaving Michel’s side 13 points clear of fifth with 15 points in play, a Champions League place that should not be seen as any less of an achievement just because it’s not the title they began to believe in and it has been in their hands all season now done. No team outside Madrid, Barcelona or Atlético has ever had as many points after 33 weeks, and they’re the teams who will join Girona there after Atlético Madrid completed a great season.

They did according to Rodrigo de Paul, anyway. On Monday he had pointed to them reaching the quarter-finals of the Champions League and the semi-final of the Copa del Rey, qualifying for the Club World Cup, and still having a Champions League place within their reach. His words didn’t go down well, but at least it was his goal that opened the scoring against Athletic, the only team that could still catch them. Angel Correa got a lovely second from Koke’s pass in a 3-1 win.

Six points and head-to-head clear, Atlético have done it again. Next year will be the 11th season in a row they have been in the competition – every year since Diego Simeone had a full campaign at the club, from 2014 to 2025 uninterrupted, having previously only gone three times: in 1996-97, 2008-09 and 2009-10. It is a measure of how far they have come, the transformation, that fourth can be seen as a disappointment, but it is. Not least because that transformation changes everywhere, expectation and reality included. Atlético’s salary limit this year is €303m; less than half of Madrid’s, true, but higher than anyone else, including Barcelona, twice the size of Sevilla’s or Real Sociedad’s, three times Athletic’s, sixtimes Girona’s. This is not a team that should be out of the title race by Christmas.

It also borders on the baffling. Saturday night was Atlético’s 15th home win: they have been beaten there just once. When Athletic won the Copa del Rey at the Metropolitano, it was their first defeat there in any competition in 28. Yet while the home form is title-winning, while they are the only team to have beaten Real Madrid – twice, in the league and cup – and drew at the Bernabéu, that only makes the collapse harder to take, and away it’s more like relegation. There, they have won just five of 18, losing eight. The things they are supposed to be good at, they are not: less Atlético than ever, Atlético have conceded 68 goals in all competitions, letting in at least one in 12 matches running. Their best defender has been a midfielder, Axel Witsel.

Villarreal’s Alex Baena (left) nutmegged two Rayo players during a sparkling moment in his side’s 3-0 victory at the weekend. Photograph: Andreu Esteban/EPA

They are 20 points off the top. Antoine Griezmann, possibly the best player in Spain until Christmas, has had an ankle injury. Alvaro Morata’s ghost came back, just when he seemed stronger, looking like a haunted man again, more offside than on, every chance untaken another wound: from 13 goals in 20 league games to one in the next 13, from five in his first four European games to none in the next six.

To accept that as a great season – even a good one – sticks in the throat. Champions League qualification is no longer the extent of their ambition; it is just what they do. And fans are entitled to ask, for what? Even as they let the league go, there was hope and that’s what hurt. In the cup, they knocked out Madrid; Athletic knocked out Barcelona for them too, but the opportunity was wasted, four conceded at San Mamés. In Europe, they had the chance of going past the quarter finals seven years later and wasted it: Inter were defeated on penalties; despite a first-leg victory and a second-leg lead, Dortmund, the team everyone wanted, were not.

Now they will get to try again. As for Athletic, cup winners and almost certain to finish fifth, having the season of their lives, the Europa League final is at San Mamés next season, which could be tasty. Real Sociedad will join them and, in just about the only thing that’s truly open still five weeks from the finish line, three teams fight for the final European slot: Betis (49 points), Valencia (47) and Villarreal (45), for whom Alex Baena produce three assists and this madness as they defeated Rayo.

And yet for all that Madrid went to la Real, Athletic went to Atlético and there was a Seville derby, the biggest game of the weekend might have been Cádiz against Mallorca, a six-and-a-half-pointer. Except that too only might have been, the last train to survival heading out of the bay without Cádiz getting on board. “We spoke so much that when it came to it, the boys forgot to play; we were nervous,” Mauricio Pellegrino said after a 1-1 draw that leaves them six points behind Mallorca, five from Celta. “We’re gutted,” striker Chris Ramos said.

Quick Guide

La Liga results


Real Sociedad 0-1 Real Madrid, Atlético Madrid 3-1 Athletic Bilbao, Alavés 3-0 Celta Vigo, Almería 1-3 Getafe, Las Palmas 0-2 Girona, Real Betis 1-1 Sevilla, Villarreal 3-0 Rayo Vallecano, Granada 3-0 Osasuna, Cádiz 1-1 Real Mallorca

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If they are on the edge, Almería have gone, the best worst team ever mathematically relegated after a 3-1 loss to Getafe. They slipped to the bottom of the table in week five and have never left. It took them 29 weeks to win. Thirty-three weeks into the second-worst season in history, they still haven’t won at home, have only 14 points, and a single victory. Even Sporting Gijón, the team with the fewest points ever, on 13, were not that bad.

Nor, weirdly, have Almería been. This is the team that scored two at Madrid, two at Barcelona and two at Girona, that drew 2-2 with Atlético, Sevilla and Valencia. But it is also the team that spent over €50m, second only to Madrid, went through Vicente Moreno, Alberto Lasarte, Gaizka Garitano and Pepe Mel, and has let in 69 goals. “When that happens, you go down,” Mel said. “We knew this was coming: we tried to stop it, but it wasn’t to be.”

Granada know too but while they are still 10 points from safety, two wins and a draw in three games gives them the tiniest glimmer of hope. “We weren’t dead; we were alive, we just needed a blood transfusion,” new coach José Ramón Sandoval said. “The past is the past, the future we don’t know, the present we have to enjoy.” Their second goal in a 3-0 win against Osasuna this weekend was scored by Myrto Uzuni, the striker who can’t train, can hardly walk, needs injections to get through a game and who says he’s playing on “one leg”, which isn’t quite a goalkeeper coach going up for a corner in the 94th minute, but it’s something. “It’s late, but we will believe until the end,” he said. “It’s football.”


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