La Liga's winner-takes-it-all final day will see two teams go head-to-head for the title for only the third time in history
And so it comes to this. Game by game until the game. Next Sunday, FC Barcelona face Atlético de Madrid at Camp Nou and the winners will take the title. No conspiracies, no suspicion, no hidden interest, no existential angst and no second chances: just attention undivided. On Sunday afternoon, Real Madrid finally fell, not quite at the last, and now there were two, hearts racing and bodies aching. 370 games, 33,300 minutes, 1,021 goals and two more draws later – 0-0 for Barcelona at Elche and 1-1 for Atlético at home to Málaga – a single match will decide who win the league. A single moment, a mere millimetre, could have decided it here. It didn't.
Barcelona's players had only just arrived in the dressing room in Elche when Gerard Piqué told them the news: 400 kilometres away the final whistle had gone. Atlético had drawn 1-1 and somehow Barcelona were still in the title race. "It was," Tata Martino admitted, "a relief". They knew they had been standing over the abyss but they did not yet know just how close they had been to slipping in, losing the league. Over in Madrid, Atlético's fans knew just how close they had been to winning it: so close that some felt like they'd lost it. "It's a pity," Gabi said, with admirable understatement. "They're sad," Diego Simeone admitted. "But it is good that they are sad: it shows that they live it."
Oh, they lived it alright. On the penultimate weekend of the season, the league title's three candidates played at the same time. It was an afternoon for radios and defibrillators, destinies played out in different destinations, head to head without even laying eyes on each other. The Calderón was packed, fans arriving an hour early to welcome the team. On each seat was a flag that declared: "Play each game like it is your last." Atlético hoped it would be. In the league at least. And if not, there would still be one more chance.
As the clock ticked down, Real Madrid were losing 2-0 at Celta Vigo, their chances gone. Barcelona were drawing 0-0 at Elche, where Andrés Iniesta had hit the bar and Lionel Messi was stopped by Manu Herrera. As for leaders Atlético, they were level with Málaga. They had been one down, watching hope slip between their fingers, one mistake seeming to cost them everything after a series of missed opportunities, but a Toby Alderweireld header had drawn them level with 15 minutes left. Now they were pouring forward looking for the winner.
The clock showed 89 minutes when José Sosa's free-kick rippled the outside of the net, a roar dying in throats all round the ground. Málaga were down to 10 men and when the board went up, it showed five more minutes. Another huge roar went up, urging them on. They went on ... and on ... and on. A cut-back cleared, a shot blocked, a header wide.
Over in Elche, Messi's shot was punched away by Herrera. Barcelona were in the 92nd minute and it was their last chance. Back in Madrid, another roar: this time the clock showedd 93:30. The full-time whistle had gone in Elche; Barcelona had drawn. Chants of "Luis Aragonés!" went round the stadium. Score, and Atlético would be champions for the first time in 18 years.
Forward they went once more. Gabi found Adrián on the left. He cut inside, dropped his shoulder and struck it with the inside of his right foot. The shot curled towards the right. The clock said 94:05 and they were a goal away from glory. Atlético could nearly reach the trophy. It was heading straight for the top corner ... the title was theirs. And then an arm appeared. Willy Caballero flew to his left and his right arm – the 'wrong' arm – tipped the ball round the post. Heads were in hands. On the touchline, Arda Turan fell to the floor, beard first; either side of him bodies lurched forward as if catapulted from the bench. When the whistle blew 30 seconds later, Simeone stared, a look of loss on his face. It had been just there; it had been theirs.
A millimetre further and Atlético would have had to go to Barcelona next week. Not to compete but to receive a guard of honour. Instead, a barely believable season heads into the final weekend. Atlético had waited 18 years for this. Now they must wait another week and their triumph could yet be denied. All season, people predicted that Atlético would fall sooner or later. If they do, it will be at the last hurdle. But for Caballero's save they would not even have had to leap it, just saunter past. Now that hurdle is a gigantic one.
For only the third time in history, two teams fighting it out for the title will meet on the final day of the season. One of them was never supposed to get there at all; one of them seemed to have forfeited the right to do so. Last Saturday Barcelona conceded the title, Martino admitting "this is as far as we can go". But the journey had not come to an end. They bade farewell to the title and to each other, saying goodbye and good riddance to a disastrous season, but now Barcelona might even be favourites to win the league. They play at home, after all.
Seven days have proven an eternity. For the first time in over a year, last weekend Barcelona, Atlético, and Real Madrid all failed to win; a week later it happened again. In between, Madrid could only draw at Valladolid. Spain's three contenders have picked up just five of the last 21 points. The 100-point league that Atlético's players confided was beyond them earlier in the campaign will be a 92-point league at most. For so long, the results of all three were impeccable. Now, it is if they are stumbling, exhausted to the line. They have all had opportunities to grab it; no one has.
Injuries have played a part – Cristiano Ronaldo and Diego Costa missed out this weekend, for a start – and so has fatigue. All three teams have five or more players whose minute totals are well over 4,000 now. Barcelona and Real Madrid reached the final of the Copa del Rey, while Atlético reached the semis; Atlético and Real Madrid reached the final of the Champions League, while Barcelona reached the quarters; the season started in August with the Super Cup between Atlético and Barcelona. Opponents are better than they are given credit for and psychology plays a part too.
It is tempting to conclude that Madrid's attention has been drawn elsewhere, that Barcelona had begun to disintegrate amidst an institutional and emotional crisis, and that for the first time Atlético, the team that had nothing to lose, found that they had something to lose. Last night Simeone said: "You try to isolate yourself but it is not easy, they are young." He added: "We will finish first [on points] no matter what, so what this team has done is wonderful." He is right of course. Before this weekend, Simeone showed his players a video of them in pre-season to show them how far they had come, how much effort it had taken to get here. This is indeed a wonderful, astonishing achievement, but it is not done yet. It may not be done at all.
For almost a year now, Barcelona versus Atlético has stood waiting at the end of the season; it always felt like it would a key game, for one or other of them … and for Real Madrid. Yet somehow, you never quite imagined it like this. Mano a mano. So pure, so perfect, yet so cruel too.
After all the permutations, it is simple now. Barcelona play Atlético again. It will be the sixth time they have faced each other this season. So far, the record reads: four draws, one win for Atlético. If Barcelona win this time, they are champions, level with Atlético on points with a better head-to-head record. If Barcelona do not win, Atlético are champions. "No one would have believed it but now we're going into the last game of the season three points ahead," Simeone said "... and still nobody will believe in us."
Simeone recently shifted his season-long narrative from "game to game" to "final to final". It has turned out to be exactly that. At the end of perhaps the greatest season in their history, Atlético Madrid have two games left, one against FC Barcelona, one against Real Madrid. One to win the league, one to win the European Cup.
Getafe 1 – 0 Sevilla; Granada 0 – 2 Almería; Espanyol 1 – 1 Osasuna; Elche 0 – 0 Barcelona; Celta Vigo 2 – 0 Real Madrid; Betis 4 – 3 Valladolid; Villarreal 4-0 Rayo Vallecano; Athletic Bilbao 1 – 1 Real Sociedad; Levante 2 – 0 Valencia; Atlético Madrid 1 – 1 Málaga.
• "We stand at the gates of salvation," said the Almería manager Francisco Rodríguez after they defeated Granada. "This is a set-back," noted Granada's manager Lucas Alcaraz, "but we have one bullet left." As for Osasuna, they continue to use theirs to shoot themselves in the foot. Much like Valladolid: the side who got results against Madrid and Barcelona conceded four to bottom-of-the-table, broken Betis. Elche's draw with Barcelona confirms their survival but it still promises to be as exciting at the bottom as the top: with one game to go, Valladolid (36), Osasuna (36), Granada (38), Getafe (39) and Almería (39) are fighting to avoid the two remaining relegation places. These are the games: Valladolid v Granada, Osasuna v Betis, Rayo v Getafe and Almería v Athletic
• "We have given in ahead of time," admitted Álvaro Arbeloa, after Real Madrid were beaten 2-0 at Celta, thanks to mistakes from Xabi Alonso and Sergio Ramos and two neat finishes from Charles.
• And for the first time in history, Levante are on course to finish ahead of city rivals Valencia.