As the minutes ticked away on Sunday night's late game between Atletico Madrid and Sevilla, the visiting bench crept closer and closer to the pitch. Every Sevilla substitute was standing; the manager and coaches too, excited, tense, pleading for the final whistle to go, waiting for that explosion of joy.
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Each time Atletico attacked they paused, nervous; each time the ball was sent up the other end, they could feel it getting nearer. Soon, they were practically on the pitch. And when at last the final whistle went, they really were. Leaping up, they embraced, punched the air and ran toward their exhausted club mates.
You would think they had won the World Cup, not drawn a league game against Atletico Madrid. But the reaction said much; there could be few greater compliments for Atletico and few greater results for Sevilla.
"Teams celebrate drawing against us now," Atletico fullback Filipe Luis said, saying it all. "I congratulated [Atletico manager Diego] Simeone out of humility and admiration," Sevilla's coach Unai Emery beamed. This was a big result for Sevilla; it would have been a big result for anyone. In 11 games at the Calderon this season, only one team had managed to secure a draw, still less a victory. And that was Barcelona.
In 20 league matches, Atlético have won 16, drawn three and lost just one. With twenty minutes to go, Atletico were one up and provisional leaders of the league, out on their own at the top for the first time in 17 years -- back when they won the league and cup double. Won 17, drawn two and lost one. But then a penalty, committed by Juanfran and scored by Ivan Rakitic, made it 1-1.
Just as it was a compliment that Barcelona adapted their game to protect themselves against Atlético the week before, there must have been something strangely satisfying in seeing Sevilla so happy. Above all, though, there must have been something frustrating. Just before Atlético's game had started, Barcelona's had ended. Down on the east coast, they had drawn 1-1 to Levante. Their year-long run at the top of the table could have come to an end; so too had Atlético's 17-year wait to lead the league alone.
And so at the news conference, the questions came in. Did you get it wrong? Why did you sit back and not look for the second goal? How will this affect the team? How costly could those points be? How disappointed are you? What have you said to pick the players up?
All the inquisitors headed in the same direction: disappointment, lost opportunity, sadness. Simeone headed in the other direction: satisfaction, security. He was smiling. A brave face perhaps, but a smiling face. This was Sevilla. Why should this affect our morale? We're happy. Fifty-one points after 20 games is an extraordinary record and a draw against Sevilla is a good result, one that allows us to remain in a privileged position.
Of course, he was right.
Atletico's position is a privileged one. Few seriously anticipated this at the start of the season. Simeone least of all: he has described winning the league as "impossible" and insisted repeatedly on the inequality in Spain. After the Barcelona game he noted with a grin that the two teams were similar -- except for the small matter of "400 million euros extra a year" in the budget. Now, they stand level at the top of the table as the second half of the season begins.
But now there are three. Atletico are not the only team whose position is a privileged one. First, Atletico and Barcelona drew with each other. Then, they drew with Sevilla and Levante respectively. Meanwhile, Real Madrid beat Espanyol 1-0 and Betis 5-0. Suddenly, everything has changed. In seven days, Real Madrid have clawed back four points the pair. There is just one point in it. Barcelona have 51 points, Atletico have 51 and Madrid, 50.
With 18 games to go, there is little margin for error; every point dropped will appear a disaster, every advantage conceded potentially fatal. The three teams are more or less on course for another record-breaking season. Not least because if they are to win the league, they have to be.
"One hundred points might not be enough," Tata Martino said.
One hundred points is the record, reached in each of the past two seasons, first by Madrid and then by Barcelona. In each of the past four seasons, the champions have been able to lose a maximum of two games. This season, Atletico and Barcelona have lost one each, Madrid two. In the past four seasons, the champions could drop points just six, six, eight and seven times: four draws and two defeats over the past two seasons, six draws and two defeats the season before, and six draws and one defeat the season before that. So far, the three contenders have dropped points four times apiece.
Simeone says that the second half of the season will be harder for Atlético. In part, he is trying to prevent the euphoria from infecting his team, but he also has a point: as he suggested, now that teams have watched them, there is less surprise. Sevilla's success -- and their reaction to it -- suggested that more teams may be satisfied to seek a draw, defending Atletico and denying them the chance to play directly and on the counter-attack. Atletico are relentless, hard to live with and supremely competitive but of the three, they are the side with the least attacking variety.
Atletico also do not have a squad as big as Madrid's or Barcelona's, and while Simeone insists that they are not tired at all, there have been fewer rotations and fatigue could yet be an issue. They are still in the Champions League and the Copa del Rey. Injuries will be harder to assimilate too, should they arrive. And Diego Costa is yet to score in 2014.
Barcelona overcame the absence of Leo Messi and had been playing extremely well of late but the Levante game revealed some familiar weaknesses: 50 percent of the goals they have conceded have come from set plays while in the absence of Andres Iniesta and Neymar, injured against Getafe and likely to be out for three weeks, they lacked a touch of incisiveness to undo tight, deep-lying defences.
Meanwhile, among Real fans, the euphoria is growing. They are unbeaten since Xabi Alonso returned, Cristiano Ronaldo has finally won the Ballon d'Or, youth teamer Jese is pushing for a place in the side with talent and temperament while Luka Modric is emerging as arguably the outstanding midfielder in the league. They have now gone six games without conceding, too, and Raphael Varane is nearing full fitness. The 5-0 victory over Betis was also a glimpse of their depth of talent: five goals, five different scorers.
The performances have not always been as good as the stats suggests and that run of clean sheets needs to be contextualised: Betis, Espanyol and Celta in the league, Espanyol and Osasuna in the Copa del Rey. Celta, in particular, departed the Bernabéu wondering how they didn’t score. But there is a security and a confidence about Madrid now that is partly born of getting a second opportunity. From five points behind and virtually out of it to just one and maybe even favourites in barely a week.
There are 18 games left and it could barely be more balanced. Barcelona must go to Madrid, Madrid must go to Atletico and Atletico must go to Barcelona. When it comes to the final few weeks, Madrid's run-in looks the easiest but what position will they be in when those games come around?
Predicting where points will be won and lost is fraught with risk but some games really stick out, with Sevilla, Real Sociedad and Athletic Bilbao likely to play a big part:
Week 22: Madrid at Athletic Bilbao. Week 23: Barcelona at Sevilla, Villarreal at Madrid. Week 25: Atletico at Real Sociedad. And week 26: Atletico Madrid versus Real Madrid.
Then there's the small matter of Real Madrid vs. Barcelona in Week 29, followed by more intrigue. Week 30: Madrid at Sevilla. Week 31: Atletico at Athletic. Week 32: Atletico vs. Villarreal and Madrid at Sevilla. Week 34: Barcelona vs. Athletic. Week 35: Villarreal-Barcelona and Valencia-Atletico.
And then, on the final day of the season: Barcelona against Atletico.
First, a mischievous question: What if those two, Madrid's great rivals, go into the final minutes of the final match of the season drawing and knowing that a draw between them gives Real Madrid the title? More to the point, what if the prize is still shining before both of them? It is possible. And that is the most extraordinary thing of all.
It has been a decade since a team not named Real or Barcelona won the league. Valencia were the last "other" winners. You have to go back seven years to the most recent time anyone else was a genuine candidate, when Sevilla were agonisingly close in 2006-07.
Since then, the gap has gotten only wider. For the past five years the distance between the team in third and the title winners has been 24, 29, 25, 28 and 17 points. Atletico have done something astonishing in an era defined by huge economic inequality, something that their manager insisted was impossible: They have made themselves contenders and given us the most exciting, tense and demanding title race in years.