There was a moment late in the penultimate game of the season last weekend when Atlético Madrid's assistant coach, Óscar Ortega, began to celebrate the end of the club's 18-year wait for the league title. It was 1-1 against Málaga at the Vicente Calderón while, 600 kilometres to the north-west, Real Madrid were losing 2-0 at Vigo and, 400 kilometres to the south-east, Barcelona were drawing 0-0 with Elche. The clock was ticking down, Atlético were a goal from glory and, with Real now out of the title race, that goal could come at their game or Barcelona's.
From somewhere behind the Atlético bench, where fans sat with radios in their ears, came the hint of a cheer. It seemed that Elche had scored. Ortega leapt up in excitement, clenching his fists. And then, slowly, he deflated. Substitutes too had stirred, searching for confirmation. They turned first to each other and then to the fans behind, led by the midfielder Mario Suárez. "Goal?" he asked. From the front row, a supporter slowly, sadly wagged his finger. "No," he said. Elche had broken away but the shot had flown just over the bar.
Atlético had been close and they were about to be closer. The full-time whistle blew in Elche but there was still a minute and a half left at the Calderón, where a huge roar had met the "5" held up by the fourth official. On 94.04, Adrián cut inside from the left and curled a right-footed shot towards the far top corner. This was it. But just then the Málaga goalkeeper Willy Caballero reached the shot, brilliantly tipping the ball over the bar.
On the touchline, Diego Simeone doubled over. The camera alongside the bench caught a figure come flying past him, head in hands. It was the substitute goalkeeper Dani Aranzubia. And beyond him, Arda Turan fell forward face-first into the turf. Other bodies fell. That was the moment. Forty seconds later the final whistle sounded.
Simeone, usually the first down the tunnel, waited for his players as they left the pitch, one by one. They looked shocked, their eyes distant, heads bowed and shoulders rolled forward. They had been that close. But they still were that close, right? This was the penultimate weekend of the season, after all. There is another chance to come.
Not exactly, not like this. On Saturday, on the final day of the season, Atlético Madrid are three points clear at the top of the table. It is an astonishing achievement for a club whose budget is a fifth the size of Real Madrid's or Barcelona's and they are on the verge of doing what no one has done in a decade, and take the league from the big two. All season, people have waited for the inevitable collapse, for Atlético to slip out of the race. But the team have refused. Simeone has talked about going game by game and, game by game, they have reached the final game. They need only to secure a draw to be champions.
The problem is their opponents are Barcelona. And this is not the way it was supposed to be. One of two scenarios were supposed to happen: one, Atlético would turn up already champions. Or, two, Barcelona would be out of the title race or at least trailing Real Madrid. And given the choice between enabling Atlético's title challenge or enabling Real's title challenge, the decision was obvious. Simeone's side would win the league. It was unthinkable that Barcelona would be challenging Atlético, and only Atlético, for the title.
A fortnight ago Andrés Iniesta insisted that it would take a "miracle" for Barcelona to win the league and that he doesn't believe in miracles. But the miracle happened: Barcelona's fate is in their own hands, just as Atlético's is in theirs. For only the third time in history, and for the first time in 53 years, two candidates face each other on the final day. No doubts, no permutations, no "ifs", no relying on relayed messages from the fans in the stand. Barcelona versus Atlético, win the game and win the league.
An incredible run of results made this possible. Pressure probably played a part, so did fatigue and fortune. The top three have not won any of the past seven games they have together played. They had not all failed to win on the same weekend for over a year; the following weekend they did it again. And between those two sets of matches, Real Madrid drew their game in hand at Valladolid. Atlético were beaten at Levante and Caballero's hand denied them victory at the Calderón. Barcelona had not conceded in Elche and were somehow back in it, placed there by their rivals.
"This is as far as we can go," Barcelona's manager, Gerardo Martino, said a fortnight ago; a week later, he said: "I'm glad I was wrong."
Now the debate has started to focus on whether or not they would be worthy winners. "It is wonderful to be able to play for the title in 90 minutes at home. It would be incredible to win it like this," Iniesta said this week. "Whoever wins it, deserves to win it. Why wouldn't we deserve it, if it's us?"
It is hard to remember the last time Barcelona played genuinely well: they drew 0-0 at Elche and 2-2 at home against Getafe, and beat Villarreal 3-2 thanks to two lucky own goals when they trailed 2-0. Before that they came from behind to beat Athletic Bilbao 2-1, with whistles and white hankies timidly appearing at the Camp Nou, lost the Copa del Rey final to Real Madrid, were beaten 1-0 at relegation-threatened Granada and beat broken and relegation-bound Real Betis 3-1 with two penalties and a freak own goal. The week before that, a penalty enabled them to scrape past Espanyol 1-0.
In the midst of all that they were knocked out of the Champions League, as the season lurched towards disaster against a backdrop of institutional crisis.
The team that knocked them out was Atlético Madrid, which is cause for optimism at the Calderón. They have faced each other five times this season and Barcelona have not won: there have been four draws and one Atlético victory. Barcelona have scored just twice in the five games. Lionel Messi has not scored. A draw this time would make Atlético champions.
Atlético could never win the league. Even Simeone said that. Slowly, people started to say that they could, then that they might, then that they would, then that they will. Meanwhile, Barcelona reached the point where they could never win the league. Even Martino said that. Now one of them must. Now has the balance of favouritism switched back again?
It is impossible to call. Who is the better team? Does playing at the Camp Nou matter? It's hard to judge if Barcelona can effectively reconnect to a season to which they had waved goodbye, emotionally and physically. It's equally difficult to decide for which club the pressure is greater. Like a cat with seven lives – not nine, like in England – Barcelona have been given yet another chance. Does what has gone before matter now? Is this a one-off? After drawing with Getafe, Xavi suggested that Barcelona should "wipe the slate clean and start again". He meant next season but he may have got his wish within a fortnight.
Atlético Madrid, the team who had nothing to lose all season, have it all to lose for the first time. It would be cruel after an astonishing campaign. If they are to be denied, it would be on the head-to-head record between the two sides. Barcelona can only equal their points total. Simeone suggested that teams that finished level should play a "final". Another one. This is effectively a final already: an opportunity, but an obligation too. And after that comes Lisbon and the Champions League final against Real Madrid.
"It's lovely to have the chance to play for the title, although we hoped not to have to play for it in this game because we had it in our hands against Málaga," admitted the Atlético captain, Gabi. "But you don't deserve titles, you win them."