For the first time since the opening day of the season 187 days ago, Spain’s top three have all played the same number of games, and Atlético Madrid’s lead has increased to six points over Barcelona and eight over Real Madrid with 12 games to go. And this time it is real, rather than virtual.
The last of their games in hand was at last played at the Wanda Metropolitano on Wednesday, Marcos Llorente and Luis Suárez scoring to secure a win against Athletic Bilbao but they had to overcome an early deficit and late anxiety to prevail.
Having dropped four points in 12 days at the start of February and then seen a victory in the derby against Real Madrid slip through their fingers in the 88th minute on Sunday, the pressure was on for Atlético. Victory then would have virtually eliminated Real from the title race and re-established their cushion over Barcelona; instead, it left Atlético vulnerable and regretting another opportunity lost, unable to rid themselves of their pursuers.
This was their last extra life and they began with the intention of using it, dominating possession and on the front foot. Control though was one thing, chances were another. And as they struggled to find spaces and real openings they were hit, which they have been too often lately. Óscar de Marcos’s wonderful pass found its way through a crowd of players to set Iñaki Williams free into the right side of the area and he turned the ball back towards the penalty spot. If the contact from Iker Muniain wasn’t particularly clean, it was enough.
That was Athletic’s first shot, 20 minutes in, and they took over. Muniain was outstanding, rising above the rest here. Atlético appeared paralysed by the prospect of everything they had built this season crumbling before their eyes. They had no response, Suárez a lone figure, João Félix unable or unwilling to impose himself. A couple of Yannick Carrasco shots were all they could muster and neither were particularly dangerous.
Until, that was, the final act of the first half when Carrasco slipped a pass to Thomas Lemar to lift a cross towards the edge of the six-yard box from the byline. There, dashing in, as he does so well, and timing the run perfectly, which he does even better, was Llorente. Ducking slightly, determined as ever, he headed Atlético level. His was the last touch of the first half and the response spoke of the relief, Diego Simeone sprinting down the tunnel, fists clenched. He would do the same at the final whistle. Continue reading