As the tears flowed for their former player and manager, the side responded to lead La Liga for the first time in 18 years
Fernando Torres tells the story of the final minutes before the 2008 European Championships. Luis Aragonés approaches him in the dressing room in Vienna and looks him in the eye; the old man and the kid. The kid has not scored yet but no one knows him like the old man and this is a ritual he has performed once before. He raises a finger and "draws" a cross on Torres's forehead, twice. "Niño," he says, "you're going to score today." Then he continues, pacing the dressing room, player by player, before speaking to the whole group together. After 50 years in the game, first as a player then as a coach, this is it.
Throughout the team talk, Aragonés refers to Michael Ballack as "Wallace". Eventually, one of the players speaks up: "Erm, Míster he's called Ballack." Aragonés claims to know that but barks: "I'll call him whatever I bloody feel like." In the tunnel soon after, the players are lined up. The jinx has been broken in the quarter-final against Italy, Spain winning on penalties, but they're nervous, tense, and the Germans look huge. Aragonés winks at them and turns to Ballack. "Good luck, Wallace," he says. And then Spain head on to the pitch and win their first trophy for 44 years. Fernando Torres scores the goal.
Luis Aragonés died on Saturday morning at 6.15 am. He was 75 and he had leukaemia but he hadn't told anyone. The man who had taken charge of more first division games than anyone else ever, on 791, and who changed the course of Spain's history, was gone. No national team has achieved what this generation of Spaniards have. "Luis paved the way," Vicente del Bosque said. The coach who had championed the counter-attack now led a team based on control: more power to the little guys. "You're the best there is. If we don't win the European Championships it's because I did a shit job," Aragonés told his players. It seems obvious now; it wasn't then. But as Lobo Carrasco, who played under him at Barcelona, put it: "Luis had square balls."
At Camp Nou on Saturday Barcelona and Valencia's players stood for a minute's silence before the opening game of the weekend; the following day, Xavi, Andrés Iniesta and Carles Puyol travelled to Madrid for the funeral. Everywhere, people followed suit. Silences, photos and T-shirts. At The Hawthorns, Pepe Mel wore a black armband. Javier Clemente led Libya to their first ever African Nations Championship and dedicated it to Aragonés. When Cristián scored the only goal for Elche against Almería, the players gathered together and signalled to the skies. At Mallorca, a chair sat next to the dugout. On it were Luis Aragonés's boots. His nickname was Zapatones: Big boots.
Nowhere embraced him like the Vicente Calderón. "Atlético are my life," Aragonés once said. Born in Hortaleza, north-eastern Madrid, he began his professional career at Real Oviedo but Atlético de Madrid was his club. A goalscoring central midfielder, with an awkward, almost ponderous gait but elegant touch, he played for them for 11 years, making 360 appearances, winning three league titles and two cups. For a moment, he appeared to have won the European Cup. He scored the extra-time goal in the 1974 final, beating Sepp Maier with a free-kick, before a ludicrous long-range shot from Hans-Georg Schwarzenbeck equalised in the very last minute and Bayern Munich won the replay.
"I would love to see Atlético Madrid win the European Cup, that's a thorn in my side still," Aragonés said in the last interview he gave before he died.
The following season from that final defeat, Bayern refused to travel to the Intercontinental Cup, so Atlético went instead and won the trophy. Their coach was Luis Aragonés. Just days had passed between his final game as a player and his first as manager. He was 36. Under him, Atlético won a league title and three cups. It was the first of four different spells, accounting for fifteen seasons and spread across almost thirty years, starting in 1974 and ending in 2003.
In the dressing room before the 1992 Copa del Rey final against Real Madrid, Aragonés picked up a bottle of Coke. "If you don't win today, I'll stick this up my arse," he shouted. "You've got to do them. This is the moment you've been waiting for: Real Madrid and at the Bernabéu. They've been sticking it up our arses for so long, now it's our chance to stick it up theirs." He pointed at the tactics board and said: "See this? Well this is irrelevant. What matters is you. Forget tactics, it's Real Madrid. Get out there and stick it up their arses!" They did, too. He returned to Atlético when they were in the second division, "hell" as they called it, and brought them back to the first. His striker was Fernando Torres. Few owed him as much as Samuel Eto'o at Mallorca; probably no one owed him as much as Torres.
At Cerro del Espino, Atlético's training ground, the flag flew at half-mast. On Saturday morning, Atlético offered Aragonés's family the chance to have his body lie at the stadium, using the Calderón as a chapel of rest before the funeral. They declined, but Aragonés's home became the focal point; his body was not there, but he was. By Gate 8, fans left flowers and candles and cuttings. Scarves carried his name. In the dressing room, an Aragonés No8 shirt hung from a peg alongside those of the team. Before the game against Real Sociedad, a giant Atlético shirt with his name and number on was carried onto the pitch by former players and an enormous portrait was unfurled at the south end.
As the teams stood, arms round each other, over on the touchline Diego Simeone swallowed hard. When he told Aragonés that he had the chance to coach Atlético Madrid, the response was typically direct: "So, what are you waiting for?"
The stadium was quiet for the first eight minutes. The silence was broken with chants of "Luis Aragonés!" Then, 30 minutes later, it erupted. Atlético won the ball back. Diego Costa headed into the left side of the area and pulled it back. David Villa, dashed alongside him, scored. Tumbling to the floor, he looked to the sky, neck tilted back, and raised his arms. During the minute's silence, he had been close to tears. The goal was for Aragonés. Villa looked up and the Calderón chanted again: "Luis Aragonés!" "Touching heaven," ran the cover of Marca.
Villa was the right goalscorer: it is hard to do justice now, six years on, to how big a decision it was to make David Villa Spain's first-choice striker, wearing No7 – el siete de España. Hard to imagine with hindsight how intense the campaign against him was. Square balls.
Real Sociedad put on the pressure and Atlético resisted like only Atlético can; almost as if it is no resistance at all, almost as if they enjoy it. Let them come. Faith, conviction, character. "We lacked penetration," Jagoba Arrasate admitted. "That's always the hardest thing against Atlético." Sent through, Diego Costa made it 2-0 curling into the corner. The fans chanted "Luis Aragonés!" again. João Miranda headed in three minutes later. The fans chanted "Luis Aragonés!" With three minutes left, the winter signing Diego Ribas, returning to the club from Wolfsburg, controlled and lifted his shot into the roof of the net. The fans chanted "Luis Aragonés!" Control, calm, cutting edge against defences that wait, avoiding the counter: with his arrival, the one thing that Atlético perhaps didn't have they do now. A connection too. "I left Atlético," Diego said, "but Atlético never left me."
This was the perfect homage. "If only Luis could have seen it," wrote the AS editor, Alfredo Relaño. "Luis is up there somewhere dressed in red and white. He would have been proud of the team, of the character and bravery that he always had," Simeone said after the game. The night before, Barcelona had lost 3-2 to Valencia at the Camp Nou. By winning, Atlético overtook them. For the first time in 59 weeks Barça are not top, Atlético are. On this night of all nights. Atlético led the league for the first time in 18 years. Yes, 18. They have not been top since 1996, when they won the league and cup double. "Luis leaves Atlético top," ran the headline in El País.
It got better too. As the players departed, the fans chanted Luis Aragonés's name again. Up in Bilbao, Real Madrid were just about to kick off against Athletic. It finished 1-1, meaning that on Monday morning Atlético were three points clear; they equalled their longest ever unbeaten run: 23 matches. They have lost just once in 37 games this season and that was thanks to a fluke own goal. Copa del Rey holders, unbeaten in the Champions League, they have an astonishing 57 points. "Game by game," Simeone keeps saying; game by game, victory by victory, they are getting nearer to a title that even their manager said was impossible. It does not look that way now.
Asked for his philosophy of football, Luis Aragonés famously responded, shaking his fist to make the point, bringing it down with every "win". "Win, win and win and win and win and win again and win and win and win and win again and win and win and win and win." Atlético Madrid are doing exactly that.
• "I think about the first 30 minutes and I can't find an explanation for what came next," Tata Martino said. He was not alone. It took Barcelona just seven minutes to take the lead against Valencia, when Alexis scored a fantastic fluke, and there seemed to be only one way the game could go. For half an hour, they were superb, creating chances only to waste them. And then, it all fell apart. Against Valencia, too – the team that had won only twice away all season and whose captain had spent most of Friday convinced he was leaving the club, only to be told with an hour of the window remaining that they hadn't signed his replacement so, actually, he could stay after all.
Led by Dani Parejo, Valencia went from 1-0 down to 2-1 up, with a break leaving them four on three for the first and Pablo Piatti, the smallest player in the league, scoring a header for the second. Valencia then took the lead again after Lionel Messi's (ropey) penalty had made it 2-2. It finished 3-2 and it was not simply chance. "At times we were overrun," Javier Mascherano admitted. "Yes, I'm worried," Martino said.
• Ibai Gómez had been on the pitch 30 seconds when Athletic Bilbao got a free-kick against Real Madrid. He took it, sending it into the Madrid area, and kept on running … he seemed to be going nowhere in particular, just heading forward because that's what Athletic do, until the ball came back out and dropped right in front of him. He hit it on the bounce screeching into the corner from 25 yards. It was only his second touch and the game's second goal; it was also no more than Athletic deserved. A fast, intense and at times fantastic game at San Mamés was level.
Athletic had the best of the first half, pressing very high and moving the ball swiftly. Ander Herrera, in particular, was superb. They had two great chances too, for Artiz Aduriz and Iker Muniain, but when they went in at half-time you wondered if the chance had gone: after all, Athletic now had to attack the wall, rather the end where the fans are, and they'd scored only 11 at that end compared to 21 at the other. When Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema provided the chance for Jesé to score in the 65th minute, you really thought so. But Ibai's belter was his eighth of the season. It also means that Athletic, who were beaten in the Copa del Rey by Atlético last week, are still unbeaten in the league at the new San Mamés.
• Getafe-Valladolid was hard to watch. Luckily, not many did.
• Can we play here every week? Celta Vigo have won just four times away from home all season, losing seven. All four wins have been in Andalucía: 2-1 at Betis, 5-0 at Málaga, 1-0 at Sevilla and at the weekend they defeated Granada 2-1.
• Welcome back, Racing Santander.
Results: Granada 1-2 Celta, Barcelona 2-3 Valencia, Levante 0-0 Rayo, Getafe 0-0 Valladolid, Málaga 3-2 Sevilla, Elche 1-0 Almería, Betis 2-0 Espanyol, Atlético 4-0 Real Sociedad, Athletic Bilbao 1-1 Real Madrid. Villarreal-Osasuna (Monday night).