The tackles flew in a full-blooded derby that fizzed from first to last but Atlético did not crumble as they would in years past
Be careful what you wish for. It is only 18 months ago that Real Madrid's fans unfurled a banner in the dying minutes of yet another victory against Atlético Madrid at the Santiago Bernabéu. The banner, a black slogan daubed across white tarpaulin, imitated a classified advert like something out of Segunda Mano, Spain's equivalent of Loot. "Wanted," it declared. "A worthy rival for a decent derby." Now they have one. The derby has been resuscitated. On Sunday afternoon, Real Madrid travelled to the Vicente Calderón to face Atlético Madrid and it was, most of the headlines agreed, just like old times. Just like last century, back when Atlético competed.
This time, the message was a different one. Before the game, the mosaic that ran along the east stand at the Calderón quoted the club's anthem to read: "Because they fight like brothers." And they fought. At the end, they were still standing, too. The bad news for them was that so were Real Madrid. When the final whistle went it had finished 2-2 and on the pitch players embraced like exhausted boxers. Raúl García and Xabi Alonso, Felipe Luis and Pepe, Sergio Ramos and Diego Costa. "Ramos kicks me and I kick him, but that's part of the game," Costa had admitted last week. Cristiano Ronaldo departed holding his head, just in case. When it came to the managers, there was satisfaction but they were seething too.
This was exhilarating if occasionally exasperating. There was little respite. Ancelotti said that Atlético had wanted a "violent" game. In the Madrid dressing room, they concluded that Atlético had not wanted to play; they had instead wanted to reduce it to a rumble. A referee who blew only rarely had helped. But if it was a rumble they wanted, there were Real players who wanted one too. In Marca, Santi Segurola called it "disagreeable … more like a fight down an alley than a football match". Others likened it to Kill Bill. AS's match report noted: "This was football, the way the British invented it in the middle ages … get the ball from one town to the other: whoever falls falls, the ball rolls and so do heads."
The tackles flew and the players flew too; there were bodies strewn on the ground. At times you winced; at times, you rolled your eyes muttering: "Oh, get up. Yes, you. And you. And you. And you. And you." Pepe in particular was, well, Pepe. The referee seemed to have decided that it was best to turn a blind eye: at times it was a free-for-all, largely lawless. Yet it was compelling, too; it was hard to take your eyes off it. And for all the puritanical complaints, in truth it was also less aggressive, less dirty and less cheaty than the recent cup game between the sides had been. Nor was it just a game born of the battle. There were gems to be found, picking through the rubble; Karim Benzema and Arda Turan, for a start. As for Costa, at times he was breathtakingly good. Above all, it was a contest.
Benzema it was who nudged in the first and for Atlético fans there was something frighteningly familiar about it. This was the ninth time in 12 games that Real had scored inside the first quarter of an hour. Normally, that's the cue for a collapse but Atlético did not crumble. Instead, they raced up the pitch and take the kick-off … with Real's players still celebrating near the corner. And then it did kick off. Properly. Filipe Luís crashed into Álvaro Arbeloa. Ramos bundled over Costa. The referee looked away; Ramos had been waving at Costa to get up before Costa had even gone down. High in the main stand, supporters kicked seats and implored journalists to take note and tell the world.
Still, Atlético did not crumble. Diego López saved from Costa. Turan turned Fábio Coentrão, leaving him slipping to the floor and Koke scored the equaliser. Koke's family name is Resurrección, Resurrection; Atlético were alive. Then Gabi got the ball. He was 36 yards out but he went for it anyway. The ball tore through the air; it tore through everything, through the fatalism, through the last 15 years, and into the net. The roar that went up when it went in might just be the loudest this column has ever heard in Spain. As the ball came back out of the net, Raúl García tried to boot it back in, a release of tension, joy unbound. Slipping, he sent the ball flying violently back off the bar. Somehow, that felt like an eloquent comment. Gabi, the captain, disappeared under a pile of bodies. Diego Simeone clenched his fists, grinning like Zippy. It was actually happening.
Atlético were 2-1 up; Modric could not escape, nor could Alonso. Atlético pushed them back and Costa was finding space, moving into the inside-right and inside-left positions, squeezing between the central defenders and the full-backs. At times, he seemed unstoppable. López was the man who had to stop him; another shot hit the side netting. Atlético were on top. The conclusion was clear: these really are different times. Atlético Madrid won the Copa del Rey final at the Santiago Bernabéu, then followed that up with a 1-0 league victory, and if the two sides finish level at the end of this season, it will be Atlético who prevail on the head-to-head. For the first time in nine games, Atlético were not going to be beaten by Real at the Calderón; their candidacy for the title remains. Defeat here and it surely wouldn't have done: six points would have been gigantic.
Something has changed in the capital. Something but not everything. "We're still alive," Simeone said afterwards. The problem was that, as the game wore on, so were Real Madrid. Atlético tired, but still had chances. As Madrid stepped forward the space opened behind. Since 1999, Atlético have probably not been closer to beating their neighbours at home. But they did not do so. Real Madrid have a three-point lead and are yet to lose there since 1999. The run goes back 5,378 days. It includes a recent cup victory: Real will play this year's final, not Atlético. Arda drew a save from López at the near post. Costa shot wide, headed wide, and completely missed one pull back near the penalty spot. He also went over in the area, tripped by Arbeloa. Which would have been bad enough but, worse, he got booked.
Over on the touchline, someone said something. The referee approached the Atlético bench and sent off Germán "The Monkey" Burgos who, to judge by the television footage filmed from the touchline, had barely raised his voice at that point. "He didn't say anything," Simeone insisted in the post-match press conference, pausing to add: "before". Afterwards, he certainly did. As the referee stood rigid before him, chest out, a defiant air about him, refusing to cede ground, Burgos went for him. Simeone, Turan, Esteban Arévalo, Pedro Pablo Matesanz, David Loras, Dr Villalón, Cristian Bautista, Oscar Pitillas, Jesús Vázquez … nine men tried to restrain him. It took six of them, together, to pull him away.
Real were still standing; the final blow had not been delivered. "Once we were able to make it about playing football, we got into the game," Carlo Ancelotti said. He changed both full-backs and brought on Isco. Simeone made just one change. "I thought it was hard for a sub to get into the pace of the game quickly," he explained. But Atlético were running on empty. Real started to create chances.
Ronaldo had two free-kicks, one of which was blocked by Gabi's arm; another possible penalty ignored. He then headed wide from Dani Carvajal's cross. And with eight minutes to go, Mario Suárez lost control, hit a tired, desperate clearance against Carvajal and lost possession inside his own area. Ronaldo scored a goal that, although it was not immediately apparent, was superb: first time, on the turn and right in the corner, brilliantly struck. There were eight minutes left. Atlético had had the victory within their grasp but it had escaped them. From top of the table, they lay third, three points off.
When the final whistle went, Atlético's fans were sort of satisfied but they knew this was a chance lost. Real's fans, high in the north stands, sang. Atlético's manager turned and headed quickly down the stairs behind the bench, stopping briefly to say something to someone. His target was out there somewhere and, more than saying it, Simeone spat it: a judgment delivered swiftly and unequivocally. Down the stairs and into the cramped, narrow, airless passageway beneath the stands with its low sloping ceiling, he went. You could imagine him sitting there in the dressing room, breathing deeply and counting to 10. Then 20, then 30, then 40 …
Ancelotti appeared in the press room, spoke briefly and then left. At the north end of the stadium, Real's bus pulled out and onto the M30. But there was still no sign of Simeone; something was eating at him, dark thoughts refusing to go away. When he did finally appear, it was almost an hour after the game and Real had long gone. As if he had been trying to calm down enough not to really let rip. When he did speak, there was a hint of victimism, a sense of injustice, in his words but there was pride too. There was also something enigmatic about it.
If this was a sign of weakness – one that was echoed by Filipe Luís talking about his perception that "no one wants Atlético up there: they want a two-team league with millions of difference between us. If Messi and Ronaldo left, this would be a shitty league" – Simeone appeared to be trying to turn it into a source of strength, almost a cause. Us against the world, the little guy fighting the powerful.
The anger and frustration simmered but said there was "no point" talking about the referee and when pressed on who he meant when he said that people were against his side, when he dropped hints about those who have an interest in seeing Atlético pushed out of the title race, he was evasive: "Who? Whoever feels like I am alluding to them … if they're listening, they know." Meanwhile, asked if it was impossible to beat Real he replied: "No. We've beaten them." With 12 weeks still to go, his team are still in the title race: "Being close to the leaders is nice and there's a Barcelona-Madrid soon which will be hard for some people," he said.
"I am very proud of the players, men who fight against everything," Simeone said. "We're still alive. It will upset a lot of people, but we're still alive."
• There must be better ways to spend a Saturday night … Getafe versus Espanyol was cold, wet, and empty. It was also rubbish. There wasn't even any joy to be had from listening to Javier Aguirre talk about the game: he was suspended, watching the game from a radio cabin, and so it was his No2, Alfredo Tena, who spoke to the media. Getafe have now gone 11 weeks without a win, while Tena said that the 0-0 draw will do Espanyol just fine.
• Getafe was the third of four Saturday night games. The others were: Málaga 1-1 Valladolid, Levante 2-0 Osasuna, and Elche 1-0 Celta. Not the most exciting Saturday ever. Although Carles Gil's goal against Celta was a beauty.
• Player of the weekend: Aritz Aduriz. Well, not player of the weekend exactly because, well, this is Athletic Bilbao and they virtually never play at the weekend. But he did score a lovely hat-trick on Friday night.
• Barcelona scored four and could have scored more. One of them was a superb free-kick by Leo Messi. But ...
• Villarreal versus Betis was moved from Sunday night at 9pm to Sunday lunchtime at noon. The reason was simple: Villarreal had asked the league to let them hold a kind of homage to the fans to demonstrate that the person who threw tear gas on the pitch does not represent them and to congratulate the fans for the orderly way that they evacuated the stadium. That involved having the league's president, Javier Tebas, at the game, along with a few local dignitaries. It also involved not playing at 9pm, a kick-off time that's not exactly conducive to a big attendance and certainly not to kids going. The LFP said yes … but only if you play at midday. (Which at least made it easier for Tebas to get there and back.)
Now, the very fact that the idea of the LFP paying homage to match-going fans – the people they appear to despise more than anyone else in the world – is a bit of a laugh. But this was worse: in order to move Villarreal to noon (and not 7pm as they had requested), they moved Rayo-Valencia from noon to 9pm. That meant fewer Rayo fans went and virtually no Valencia fans did: from a trip they could comfortably do in a day it was now impossible to get back home on Sunday night. Oh, and it gets worse too: Villarreal's opponents, Betis, had been in Russia on Thursday night and only arrived back, shattered, on Friday evening. For them, the extra nine hours genuinely mattered.
In short, to pay homage to one set of fans for doing something that, quite honestly, is pretty unremarkable, they pissed off three sets of fans. How very like the LFP.
Results: Athletic 4-0 Granada, Málaga 1-1 Valladolid, Levante 2-0 Osasuna, Getafe 0-0 Espanyol, Elche 1-0 Celta, Villarreal 1-1 Betis, Atlético 2-2 Real Madrid, Sevilla 1-0 Real Sociedad, Rayo 1-0 Valencia, Barcelona 4-1 Almería.