If Diego Simeone had said at the start of February that he had a feeling of foreboding about the upcoming games, everyone would have laughed him out of the Zoom call. Fresh from winning fifteen out of sixteen league games in a row, with only one loss away to their cross-Madrid rivals, there would have been no need for a sense of impending dread that the wheels might be starting to shake on Atlético’s bus.
If you had asked me if I thought the game would end up swinging in Real’s direction the answer would have been a resounding yes; we have seen this film before.
It would of course be over-kill to say that the wheels have well and truly fallen off this big, feisty, red-and-white bus but they are wobbling, clinging on at the tethers. Since the start of February, results have turned for Atléti, winning just three out of the eight league games that have followed. Draws have been the real gut-punch with their only loss coming away to Levante in a game where wastefulness in-front of goal really cost them. Timing appears to be another problem as two late goals have recently cost Atlético four points. The eighty-ninth-minute equalizer at home to Celta will have certainly hurt, but the Real pain was to come a month later.
In a much-hyped “title decider”, this top of the table El Derbi Madrileño took on new urgency after a mini resurgence from Real at the same time that Atléti stumbled. A win would have put Simeone eight points clear of Zidane with a game in hand and five points ahead of an ever-shakier Barcelona. Despite Luis Suárez putting Atlético one up, if you had asked me if I thought the game would end up swinging in Real’s direction the answer would have been a resounding yes; we have seen this film before. Ultimately, Real knew that one chance would come their way, whether it was down to luck or hard work, as it always does against Atlético.
The only question remaining was would Real take three points or one from this derby. Less than thirty seconds were crucial in deciding this game and could be pivotal in confirming the Champions; a perfectly choreographed attack by Casemiro and Benzema constructed an eighty-eighth-minute equalizer for Real which had sprung from an Atléti attack and put the game beyond doubt. Although, it has to be said that Courtois made a number of good saves to prevent Atlético from extending their lead.
Arguably, for the first time since the 2015-2016 season, Atlético Madrid are posing a genuine and serious title challenge in La Liga, threatening to break up the Real-Barcelona domination in Spain. However, Barca have not lost in the league since 05 December and Real, in a strange quirk, have only lost to Levante – a worrying omen for Simeone’s men.
Still, a title race is well and truly on. Atléti are being hunted and are desperate to find some form to kick their mid-season title aspirations back into gear, but their goalless draw away at Getafe will have done nothing to help this. Simeone will highlight that they are still three points clear and are very much the team setting the pace. Yet, with a huge El Classico on 10 April and a trip to the Camp Nou in May, you could argue that Barca are the team in control of their own destiny.