Atlético Madrid is positioned to lift the trophy in La Liga this weekend, but like Real Madrid and Barcelona, it should view the end of the season as an opportunity.
Atlético Madrid had reached the point where Atlético Madrid does what it always does. It had two games left in its season and a two-point lead over Real Madrid at the top of the league table. All Diego Simeone’s team had to do was win, twice. Beat unremarkable Osasuna at home and the relegation-threatened Valladolid away, and it would all be over. The Spanish title would be claimed.
And so, with a sense of grim predictability, Atlético set about failing. For 75 long minutes, it toiled against Osasuna, blunt in tooth and claw. When a goal came, it was the visitors who scored it. Real Madrid was winning in Bilbao, and Atlético was losing, and a club that self-identifies as cursed was feeling it all start to happen again.
Until, that is, it didn’t. With eight minutes to play, Renan Lodi drew Atlético level. That would still not be enough. But with two minutes left, Luis Suárez intervened. Atlético had defied its destiny, for another week at least. “Everyone tells you that suffering is part of Atlético’s identity,” Suárez said. “I didn’t think we’d suffer that much.”
Nobody at Atlético Madrid is assuming anything yet, of course. They have learned from bitter experience how that works out. Valladolid needs to win, on Saturday, to avoid relegation. That Suárez goal may have felt decisive, but the finish line has not been crossed, not yet. There is one more hurdle to clear.
This is the Atlético way, of course. Rewind a few months and the prospect of this sort of late drama in the Spanish title race seemed a distant one. Atlético was cruising at the top of La Liga, and both Real Madrid and Barcelona were stuttering and stumbling in its slipstream.
By the end of January, Atlético had lost only once in the league. But then the fuel ran out, or the nerves set in, and the lead started to shrink. Levante took four points off Simeone’s team in only a few days. There were losses at Sevilla and Athletic Bilbao, and draws at Real Betis and Getafe. Real Madrid and Barcelona appeared in the rearview mirror. In Spain, a race like that tends to end only one way.
That it has not — that it might not — this time owes much to the tenacity of Simeone’s squad. For much of the last couple of years, Simeone, the club’s Argentine coach, has been trying to finesse his approach, to move away at least a little from the dogged and disciplined style on which he has built his reputation and establish Atlético as a little more adventurous, a touch more expansive.
The transformation has never, in all honesty, really taken. If anything, Simeone has too successfully cast this club in his own image over the decade that he has been in charge. Atlético can never change, not truly, not with the old ways baked into its skin, imprinted on its brain, hard-wired deep in its soul. That, this season has proved, is no bad thing. What Atlético needed was a little of his grit to carry it through. Its reward may yet be a championship.
But Atlético’s resolve has not been the only factor. So, too, have been the shortcomings of the two teams it is seeking to usurp. As Atlético has faltered at various points over the last six weeks, both Real Madrid and Barcelona have found themselves in a position to take control of the title race. Both have had moments when they knew, at least briefly, that if they won all their remaining games, they would win the championship.
Neither has been able to follow through. When Barcelona might have taken charge, it lost at home to Granada. The day after Atlético escaped Camp Nou with a goal-less draw, Real Madrid dropped two points at home against Sevilla, squandering a chance to claim first place.
That is a fitting microcosm of where both giant clubs find themselves. When a team declines, it is the sense of power that is first to go, that feeling that it has ultimate agency, that it is the central protagonist in the narrative. As their teams have been allowed to age, as their executives have become hooked on the morphine of nostalgia, both Real and Barcelona have reached that point. They are good enough, still, to find themselves in the places where they used to be. They are no longer able, though, to do what they once did when they got there.
For Atlético, that should represent an opportunity. Real and Barcelona have long dominated Spanish soccer, but even by their standards, the last two decades have been gluttonous. If Atlético holds on, this season would be only the second time since 2004 that La Liga has not been won by either of its twin titans.
The scale of the rebuilds required to restore either Barcelona or Real to its former grandeur should encourage Simeone. Both of his rivals face not just an overhaul of their squads this summer — in soccer’s squeezed pandemic economy — but also a strong possibility that they will have to replace their managers. Zinedine Zidane may leave on his own terms. Ronald Koeman may not.
Ordinarily, an Atlético title victory is an exception, a brief and bright break from the monotony of Barcelona and Real Madrid’s trading titles. This time, it may be something different: the start of something, rather than an end.
And yet the same currents that have diminished Barcelona and Real, allowing their stranglehold to be broken and offering Simeone the opportunity to burnish his legacy still further, have eroded Atlético, too. For all that Barcelona’s decision to allow Suárez to leave last summer has backfired — spectacularly — he is hardly a bet for the future.
There is plenty of time left for Saúl Ñíguez, José Giménez and Marcos Llorente, but of Simeone’s core group of players, only two, João Félix and Lodi, are younger than 24. Much more than an infusion of new talent, though, what Atlético requires is an injection of new thought.
That is a strange thing to say, when Simeone is on the cusp of delivering a second title, when his methods have proved so effective in this cramped, condensed season. But while his approach can still work, while it is not devoid of merit, it would be a push to describe it as cutting edge.
If a Champions League exit against Chelsea in March could be excused as poor timing — Atlético hitting a wall just as Chelsea started hitting its stride — it also made the loss to RB Leipzig, in last year’s quarterfinals, harder to dismiss. Atlético, the evidence suggests, is much less fearsome in Europe than it is in Spain.
That is not a surprise. Real’s and Barcelona’s troubles are not simply linked to time’s dread march on their squads. They have also been undone by a failure to keep pace with soccer’s development. The cradle of the game’s ideas has shifted north and east over the past five or six years, first to Germany and then to England.
Spain, by contrast, has been left behind. The most obvious manifestation of that is at Real and Barcelona, those monuments to the greats of a decade past, but it applies to Atlético, too. It may claim a title this year. It may claim one next season, too. Simeone’s brilliance may stave off the inevitable for a while; defensive, reactive soccer, when executed well, is timeless.
But at some point the ideas forged in the Bundesliga and perfected in the Premier League will land in La Liga. That is how soccer works: Ideas spread, diffused either by coaches or by the mere sight of success.
That leaves Atlético with no less of a choice than the one confronting the two rivals it hopes, on Saturday evening, to finish off. After it has stopped celebrating, it can try to adapt, to get ahead of the curve, to turn what has always been a one-off success into a pattern. Or it can take the other path, and continue to do what it always does.
Celebration, Relegation and Perspiration
It is not only Atlético, and not only Spain, that is on tenterhooks this weekend. There are matters still to be settled in all of Europe’s major leagues going into the final round of games, most notably in France, where the championship is on the line. There are no complex permutations: If Lille beats Angers on Sunday, it will win its first title in a decade. If it doesn’t, and Paris St.-Germain beats Brest (which it will), then the crown will remain in the capital.
In Serie A, Juventus may yet salvage something from its dismal season. Andrea Pirlo’s team won the Coppa Italia on Wednesday, three days after a late, not-uncontroversial victory against Inter Milan kept alive its hopes of qualifying for the Champions League. Juve must beat Bologna in its final game, and hope either that Napoli stumbles at home to Verona or (more likely) that second-place Atalanta beats third-place A.C. Milan.
Three teams harbor hopes of qualifying for the Champions League in England, too, with two places unassigned. Chelsea will be assured one of them if it beats Aston Villa, and realistically Liverpool will take the other if it beats Crystal Palace at home. If either teams drops points — or, in theory, if it beats Tottenham by five goals in what may be Harry Kane’s final game for his boyhood club — Leicester can slip in, too.
There are only two questions yet unanswered in the Bundesliga. One is which of Cologne, Werder Bremen and Arminia Bielefeld will be relegated, along with Schalke, and the other is whether Robert Lewandowski can score the goal he needs to overtake Gerd Müller’s record for goals in a single season. The answer to the former is rather more complex than the answer to the latter.
The Wait Is Over. Let the Booing Begin.
Tottenham did not even make it to halftime. Like every club in England — like pretty much every team around the world — it had waited months to be reunited with its fans. Its players had longed for the moment when the eerie silence of empty stadiums and the existential futility of ghost games would be at an end, and soccer would feel real again.
That moment arrived at 6 p.m., local time, on Wednesday. By 6:39 p.m., those players were being booed by those fans.
It is not hard to understand the frustration. Two years ago, Tottenham played in a Champions League final. In the years preceding that, it had established itself as a semiregular contender to win the Premier League. It had a beloved, highly regarded manager, an adventurous, dynamic team, and its finest player, a prolific, home-reared striker, was the England captain.
To reach that point, Tottenham had to get a series of decisions right. It had to appoint Mauricio Pochettino. It had to recruit Son Heung-min and Toby Alderweireld and Christian Eriksen. It had to nurture Dele Alli and find a way to get the best out of Kane and have countless more judgment calls go its way. It was a long, arduous and delicate process.
All Tottenham had to do to fritter away that status, by contrast, was get a couple of decisions badly wrong. It had to fail to strengthen its squad for more than a year, as the club was growing. It had to fire Pochettino. It had to replace him with José Mourinho, a vanity appointment that made little sense.
And that was that: In two years, Spurs has gone from England’s up-and-coming club to something resembling the upper-middle-class mediocrity it has endured for most of the past, well, 50 years. It is struggling to find a long-term replacement for Mourinho. Kane has now told the club twice that he wants to leave. Its involvement in the Super League plot was, to many, a cheap gag. Its hard-won prominence has been squandered.
So it is no surprise, in one sense, that the fans did not need a second invitation to vent their dissatisfaction. Their anger, during a 2-1 defeat to Aston Villa, was justified. But even so, it seemed a curious and sad way to celebrate that long-anticipated return to the stadium, to live sports, turning what was supposed to be a homecoming into a gantlet.
The Crew, Saved
By recent standards, the Columbus Crew’s rebrand counts as a stunning success. Columbus, the reigning Major League Soccer champion, managed to stick with its plan to become Columbus S.C. for eight whole days before throwing up its hands, restoring the Crew part of its name and abandoning the whole idea. That is four times as long as the Super League lasted.
From the other side of the Atlantic, the reluctance with which M.L.S. embraces its history is strange. Yes, of course, those original names — the Kansas City Wiz and the Tampa Bay Mutiny and the Des Moines Spanx and whatever — are cartoonish. Yes, obviously, Europeans laugh at them.* Yes, probably, Americans should too, certainly if they want Europeans to stop.
[*It’s odd, because we don’t laugh at N.F.L. or N.B.A. team names, and they’re just as ridiculous.]
But they are also, as the M.L.S. writer Pablo Maurer has pointed out, part of the fabric of soccer’s history in North America, and something is lost in jettisoning them.
It often seems as if the new generation of M.L.S. names — C.F. Montréal and Columbus S.C. and all of the Uniteds — are an attempt to impose a borrowed form of authenticity on a product. If the teams sound European, the logic seems to be, the whole thing will feel more serious, more real.
But importing names and borrowing iconography does not add authenticity; it subtracts it. The Wiz and the Burn and the Sounders — and, yes, the Cosmos, too — are part of American soccer’s origin story. They are where the game came from. They represent its roots far more than a tradition co-opted from Europe. That they are different from the names in the Old World is a strength, not a weakness. Authenticity is not something that can be imposed. It has to be earned, and those names have earned it.
Thanks to Dan Woog for getting in touch to clear up the mystery as to why basketball players do not, apparently, need to warm up like soccer players do. “Soccer players enter a match having sat for a while,” he wrote. “80 minutes or more, in some cases. Basketball players frequently shuttle in and out of games. They may sit for only a few minutes at a time. Presumably, they’re already warm.”
Don Langford, on the other hand, comes with a challenge. “Is it possible to write an article about Manchester City without mentioning their wealth? I realize that City’s financial and ownership position cause serious discomfort among many people. I agree that it’s appropriate to talk about the distorting effect of money and politics in the game. It seems to me, however, that every writer, commentator, or pundit mentions their money whenever possible. Is there an editorial, or technical, or moral requirement to do so?”
This is a great question, Don, and it is something I wrestle with a lot. I would say that there is both an editorial and moral requirement to mention it when it has a direct impact on the article in which it appears. It would, for example, be egregious to mention it when assessing the form of a particular City player, or describing the merits or flaws of a specific performance.
But equally, it would be remiss not to note it when writing something on City’s overall rise to prominence, or something seeking to explain (as an example) how it managed to win the Premier League this season. Pep Guardiola’s brilliance and Fernandinho’s resolve and Ilkay Gundogan’s goals all helped, of course, but to suggest City was not at least buoyed by the fact that it can afford to employ a far deeper squad than any of its rivals would, put bluntly, be a lie.
That is, I suspect, a subject you will all read more on next week.