One delighted simply to still have another chance of unlikely glory, the other down heartened at the prospect of having to do it all again, Barcelona will meet Atletico Madrid in a dramatic final-day decider for the Spanish league title.
After an incredible weekend of tension, it is difficult to comprehend that we are set for even more in a week’s time. Saturday’s finale at the Camp Nou was so close to being rendered a mere celebration for Atletico and a painful reminder of a failed campaign for Barcelona. The two teams played simultaneously on Sunday. Barcelona had finished goalless at Elche, while Atletico’s contest at home to Malaga stretched into a fifth minute of injury time.
It was in those dying embers that Adrian cut inside onto his right foot and curled a shot that looked for all the world to be heading for the top corner of the net. Break the goal line and Atletico would be champions for the first time in 18 years, Barcelona’s season condemned to an almost fitting damp, trophy-less finish. Instead, Willy Caballero leaped, stretched out his fingertips and got just enough of them to the ball to turn it around the post. Denied the chance to win the title in front of their own fans at an emotionally charged Vicente Calderon, denied a chance for a valuable rest ahead of their opportunity to complete a most remarkable season by lifting the Champions League in Lisbon, Atletico now may now be denied in the most agonizing fashion.
Had Atletico been offered this position last August, it is hard to think that anyone associated with Atletico would not have accepted with utter glee and bemusement the prospect of two one-off matches to potentially make them Spanish and European champions. But it takes extraordinary control of one’s mind to deep down view events that way now. Atletico came so close to being champions and now they must avoid defeat against Barcelona to avoid letting it slip. Under any doubt about how pressure can get to underdogs who suddenly become favorites, Diego Simeone only need place a phone call to Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers.
“It’s annoying when you give everything the game demands, because the players gave everything,” Simeone said after the game, according to Spanish publication AS. “Now there’s a 50-50 chance, just like in every final.”
Atletico have taken just one point from their last two matches, had they taken just one more they would already be champions. Barcelona have gained just two points from the same period and will be counting their blessings simply to still have a chance at the title. It seems almost implausible that the Catalans could still end the season as champions of Spain. It certainly wouldn’t fit the narrative of a club that has been in disarray off the pitch throughout the campaign and directionless on the field with a once glorious generation reaching the end of an era under a lame duck manager.
Whatever happens Gerard “Tata” Martino is almost certain to leave his post after just a single season. He was thrown into an unenviable situation from the off and things have not gotten any easier for the dignified Argentinean. But the demise of the team and its title chances may yet prove to have been written off prematurely. Questions were being asked about the end of an era after a dismal loss to Real Valladolid two months ago, one month ago leading Catalan publication Sport followed a similarly woeful 1-0 reversal at Granada with the headline “Goodbye Liga, Goodbye Tata, Goodbye…”
Yet, Barcelona need now produce just one big performance, secure one win to claim their fourth title in five years. Logically, there is little reason to think they can pull it off. The team was again disturbingly toothless going forward at Elche on Sunday, despite their trademark dominance of the ball. In the five previous matches against Atletico this season, Barcelona have failed to win a single one. Atletico have won just one, but four have been draws. Another and Atletico will be presented the trophy.
Atletico appear to have the coach, players and experience necessary to frustrate Barcelona once more, but the contrasting emotions of Sunday could yet play their part in this season’s masters of the upset being upset at the very last.
When and where: The match will kick off at noon ET on Saturday from the Camp Nou.