In the Bumper Book of Things You Just Knew Would Happen, this was Chapter One and the less time there was for it to happen, the more you knew it would; the more they knew it could too, which might be part of the reason it did. As it turned out, on this occasion, 29 seconds were enough. The question now is: enough for what? Was it just a Sunday afternoon that slipped through their fingers or a whole season? And if Real Madrid were resurrected, for how long? At the end of the derby that was supposed to decide the title but instead ended with a 1-1 draw that left it open, Luis Suárez wore a look that could kill. Mostly because Atlético Madrid couldn’t.
The screens in the Metropolitano showed that 86.41 had passed and Atlético were winning 1-0 when Suárez ran at Real’s defence with Saúl sprinting alongside him, space opening before them, a wide, clear path into the area offering one last opportunity to end this match and maybe the race for the league. Scorer of the only goal at that point, his body contorting to screw a shot past Thibaut Courtois with the outside of his right foot, the Uruguayan’s every touch had been just about perfect until his last: this time, the legs were heavy and so was the pass. Saúl was inside the area still, Suárez joining him, João Félix further to the right, the time 86.44. But he had been forced wide and the chance was soon gone, another about to take its place.
Crowded, Saúl tried to return the pass but the ball took a deflection, looped out of the area and it began. Deep in his half, clock running – 86.52 – Fede Valverde evaded a lunge. The ball went left, where Karim Benzema made everything make sense, bringing clarity and breathing life into the move. Stepping away from one challenge, he bent it towards the other side, opening everything up, and headed off after it. Five seconds later, 87.10 now, he had it back again, six or seven yards outside the area on the other side. Koke was just behind him, but there were still nine players between him and goal. To his right came Casemiro, on a run that had begun inside Real’s area and was about to end in Atlético’s.
Benzema shifted the ball smoothly from one foot to the other, easing away from Geoffrey Kondogbia – unable to stop what he had been sent on to stop – and slipped it through a narrow, four-man corridor to Casemiro. As Jan Oblak came to him, Casemiro gave it back. And there, the Frenchman slipped in the knife. From 86.44 to 87.13, one area to the other, game over to game on. It was a brilliant goal, Benzema and Casemiro standing there bumping chests and celebrating as Suárez let out a screech. It was also inevitable somehow. How very Atlético, how very Real.
Actually, that’s an exaggeration, and no one knew anything. The days when Atlético would invent a thousand ways to blow the derby, each more absurd than the last, are no more, no longer waking up in the Cherry Street Bed and Breakfast, Punxsutawney, the story told with just two keys: Ctrl C, Ctrl V. That run of 14 years and 25 derbies without a win ended – in extra-time at the Santiago Bernabéu – and for a while Atlético had even been better. Much, much better. They still are, in fact: forgotten in the fatalism, Atlético are still above their neighbours.
And yet there was still something there, some sense that by letting Real off they had let themselves in for a broken heart, that this was a story they had seen before and knew they would see again; something that meant when it happened you couldn’t help thinking: well, yeah, obviously. There were the two painfully cruel European Cup finals, after all; the glorious failure the very last time they met at the Calderón, before it was demolished, a road piling right through the middle of it, leaving nothing but rubble and regrets; and the fact that Atlético still hadn’t won a derby at their new home, four seasons later.
There was an inevitability about the men who had made it happen too. “Benzema sustains Madrid,” ran the headline on the front of AS, but it’s more than him, Sunday offering another illustration of how Benzema, Courtois and, especially, Casemiro keep Real going. No one is a decisive as the Brazilian who scored one and produced an incredible assist for the other when Madrid came from behind to draw in Gladbach in the Champions League with goals in the 87th and 93rd minutes and who has now scored five times in La Liga: three opening goals, two winning goals. The man whose run rescued them here.
There is something in those basic “truths” of football which is multiplied in Madrid. When you let an opponent off you end up paying for it, they say. Real are the T-1000 hanging off your back bumper. At times it can feel like they really don’t need to be good to win: this is the team that in the last five games alone scored a deflected last-minute equaliser against Real Sociedad, beat Valladolid 1-0 with a goal from Casemiro, and defeated Huesca 2-1 with Raphaël Varane getting the winner in the 85th minute. The team that, it sometimes seems, needs the manager to be on the verge of the sack to emerge victorious yet somehow always finds a way to survive. The team you absolutely must kill while you can. “Never leave Real Madrid alive!” ran the headline in Marca.
In short, it’s the indestructible optimistic and the incorrigible fatalist; the team with all the luck and the one who if it wasn’t for bad luck would have no luck at all. Much of it is myth – it’s not like Atlético haven’t rescued games late this season, not like Real have never been beaten at the death – but that’s Real and this is Atlético, or so it goes.
“All Real Madrid had to do was resist and wait for that intangible moment when Atlético got nervous at winning and even playing well, very well at times, as if that was a sin,” said Roberto Palomar in Marca. In El Mundo, Atlético season-ticket holder Iñako Díaz Guerra wrote: “For an hour or more, Atlético thought they were better (because they are) … they seemed to have everything under control and then, as if a Hollywood producer had turned up and told the scriptwriter that this was much too original and that the public wants to see what it expects to see, the film changed into what it always is. It’s hard to work out how much of it is just habit, like a dog that waits by its owners’ grave expecting a bone it will never get (unless it starts digging).”
That’s often framed as Simeone’s fault, a man struggling with their identity, unable to commit fully to something new, and supposedly drawn by his very nature into a defensiveness for which you inevitably pay, dropping deep and inviting opponents to attack. Bottling it, some call it. On Sunday, Kondogbia replaced Correa with eight minutes to go, and he was weak in the goal; Atlético did get deeper; and there are questions to be asked about how often late defensive changes hurt teams more than they help them.
But this time all that analysis doesn’t entirely stand up however predictable the final outcome felt. When the goal came, it was with Saúl and Suárez attempting one last attack to kill it rather than just hang on – and there were still almost 90 metres for Real to travel, nine players to get through, and 29 seconds to the other goal. If Atlético failed to stop them, perhaps it was that they were not defensive enough, nor sufficiently cynical. There was no run to the corner, no tactical foul, no early end to the counter. Maybe dropping deeper was only natural given what they had to lose, and hardly unique to Atlético. Meanwhile the goal they sought was one they should have got sooner. They hadn’t settled at 1-0. After that, Courtois twice saved from Suárez. He also denied Yannick Carrasco, sent through by Suárez’s first-time nutmegged assists. And Correa somehow scuffed a simple volley. “He’d been blinded by the lights,” Simeone said.
Or maybe it was the dizzy new heights. Score that, score the final chance too, and Atlético would have been eight points clear of Real, five points clear of Barcelona with a game in hand. Instead, Real were revived. “We’re alive,” Zinedine Zidane said. “We still have the league in our heads,” Benzema insisted. “It’s two points dropped, clearly: if we had finished better we would have won,” Koke said. “For the win to have escaped us like that hurts a bit,” admitted Marcos Llorente, “but we have to be positive: if we play like this few games will escape us.”
Valencia 2-1 Villarreal, Osasuna 0-2 Barcelona, Cádiz 1-0 Eibar, Elche 2-1 Sevilla, Real Valladolid 2-1 Getafe, Athletic Bilbao 2-1 Granada, Real Sociedad 1-0 Levante, Atlético Madrid 1-1 Real Madrid, SD Huesca 3-4 Celta Vigo
He was probably right, on both counts. For most of this derby Atlético impressed; they were far the better side. When Oblak made a superb double save from Benzema in the 80th minute, it was Real’s first proper chance. The return of Kieran Trippier and Carrasco will help. They have scored more than Real for the first time in 23 years. But this hurt. “It depends how you look at it,” Simeone said. “There’s the equaliser in the last two minutes, and then there’s the performance. We pressed, controlled. We faced a team with great players who always has those final minutes. And we had more chances than them. People seemed to think we were going to win the league by 15 or 20 points. I don’t know what they expected.”
Well, pretty much this.