“Let’s see if there’s a pen,” Antoine Griezmann said with a grin on his face as he turned and headed toward the tunnel with the match ball under his arm. It was late on Sunday night at the Sánchez Pizjuán in Seville and his grand week had started. Three days later, hidden inside his hood as the rain poured, he was looking for another pen, holding another ball, at another stadium: The Wanda Metropolitano this time. Seven goals in three days, a hat trick against Sevilla, four against Leganes, next stop: Barcelona.
When Atletico scored against Athletic Bilbao on Feb. 18, Diego Simeone’s celebration was the reaction of a man who knew has team still had something to compete for. He denied it, but there was something there. A fortnight on, there definitely is.
At the final whistle of Barcelona’s 1-1 draw with Las Palmas on Thursday, the radio commentator shouted: “Hay Liga! Hay Liga! Hay Liga!” Literally, it means “there is league” and is one of Spanish football’s favourite phrases. It is sed even when there isn’t really, but this time there is; Griezmann had made sure of that and so had Barcelona.
Not long ago, it appeared to be all over. As February began, Barcelona had won seven in a row and were 11 points clear. And it wasn’t even 11 points over Real Madrid – the defending champions were seventeen behind — it was Atletico who were their closest challengers. On Sunday, Diego Simeone’s men go to the Camp Nou. If they win, they will be just two points behind.
The advantage is with Barcelona: They’re five points clear and play at home. A draw would keep things as they are, while a win might end any suggestion there is a title race. There are 11 games remaining after this weekend and Barca have already played at Atletico, Real Madrid and Valencia.
Bu, still, if Atletico win, it will be two points. Two. And such an outcome is no great leap of faith; El País led with “Griezmann threatens Barcelona” and AS said “Griezmann scares Barcelona.” The French international is in frightening form, as is his team.
Andres Iniesta insisted after Thursday’s game that “now we have to think about Atletico” and the only thing you could take issue with was the word “now.” It was hard to avoid the sensation that Barca already were and maybe that was part of the problem in the Canary Islands, where their own sense of superiority also undermined them. It was so easy that it turned out to be hard. Jonathan Calleri’s penalty cost them. The first spot kick Barcelona had conceded in two years, manager Ernesto Valverde called it “invisible”, much like his team.
Jordi Alba, absent, had sought and received the yellow card that would see him suspended vs. Las Palmas and not miss Atletico. Luis Suárez tried but was unable to do the same, so there he was, playing on the verge of a suspension and walking a disciplinary tightrope that reduced him to a careful, well-mannered, inoffensive version of himself. Ousmane Dembele and Philippe Coutinho sat it out until late in the game and only Lionel Messi really played, which might be a comment that goes beyond Thursday’s game.
Barcelona already knew that Sunday’s game was huge; by dropping two points it became even bigger. They know they have given Atletico an opportunity.
While there has been an six-point swing in a month, there has been no great collapse, but there has been a shift to a sense that they are no longer in control. Barca have looked tired, uninspired, like the errors of before are more likely to be punished, less secure and less assured.
They are unbeaten in 26 league matches this season but have drawn three of their last five — against Getafe, Espanyol and Las Palmas — and those draws have felt a little like defeats because Atletico have been relentless, with eight wins and a draw in their last nine.
How things have changed. In the late autumn and early winter, Atletico appeared to be in crisis, a sensation that was perhaps driven, above all, by goalless draws against Qarabag and Roma that led to their elimination from the Champions League. But they also won just four of their first eight league games, six of their first 12. The lack of creativity and finishing that cost them in Rome and Baku was also played out domestically.
And yet it is also true that Atletico reached the last game before Christmas undefeated in La Liga. That night, Dec. 22, they lost 1-0 to a late goal at Espanyol and they have not been beaten since. Maybe that should be no major surprise: Cup winners at the Bernabéu against Madrid and league winners at the Camp Nou against Barcelona, Atletico are the only side in Europe to take titles from either of Spain’s big two over the last four years. The Madrid derby has been resuscitated and Atletico-Barcelona is like Spain’s “other clásico.”
Sunday’s game has been billed a title decider which, while an exaggeration, is understandable. And calling what will happen is far from easy. Over the last few days, the sense that Atletico really can win there, that they can win the league, has cemented.
As they served a transfer ban, there was always a feeling that, if Atletico could hang in there and stay close, then they could compete in the New Year once Diego Costa and Vitolo were added the team. The very fact that they were awaiting such reinforcements increased the sense that the opening months of the season were somehow temporary, a phoney war ahead of the real battles.
The thing was, most saw that as a plan more applicable in the Champions League where, once overcome, every group phase is forgotten and where the two-legged format seemed to favour them. Instead, they didn’t manage to hang in there in Europe and, after two finals, a semifinal and a quarterfinal over the last four years, — eliminated by Real Madrid every time — they failed to get out of the group.
In the league, they seemed too far away as well; Barcelona had disappeared over the horizon. Quietly, though, Atletico kept winning and the leaders came back into view.
“Quietly,” that says. At first, perhaps, but no more. How can it ever be with Costa around? Or with Griezmann? And, if they didn’t always attract attention, a team defined by its defence, which has kept 17 clean sheets and conceded just 11 times all season.
If the 1-0 win at Málaga on Feb. 10 didn’t impress, then beating Athletic felt like a shift and scoring five in Seville, before putting four past Leganés, tends to make people sit up and take notice: Atletico scored nine goals in three days.
It is not so long ago that Griezmann gestured for his own fans to be quiet and he admits that he was affected by the kind of discontented murmur that occasionally went around the Metropolitano. Supporters knew he had been close to a departure in the summer and didn’t afford him the patience they gave others. But things have changed and, if there may never be the warmth reserved for Fernando Torres, there’s an awareness that Griezmann is their best hope and is getting better.
“I made mistakes off the pitch but not on it,” he said. Only the second player in the league to reach double figures for goals and assists — the first is Messi — Griezmann has more than 100 Atletico goals and has been accelerating of late. He is the first player at the club to get back-to-back hat tricks in 80 years.
With Costa, Atletico are a better team and Griezmann is an even better player, liberated and dangerous, with space opening before him, options too. He has been involved in 18 of his club’s last 20 goals. Until Costa’s inclusion in January, he had seven goals and five assists. Since, he has scored 13 and assisted five.
The ban meant a wait for Costa, but probably also meant Atletico were able to keep hold of Griezmann, for another year at least. Leaving now would be “dirty,” he said last summer, so he stayed and, now, here he is. Now, too, here is Costa, the former Chelsea striker who “transmits fear,” said Simeone. Yet there’s a tinge of sadness, with supporters unable to avoid that touch of melancholy amid the realisation that this forward partnership may only last a few months.
Most expect Griezmann to join Barcelona, who admitted they had spoken to his representatives. But over the last few days, the question has been raised again: Could the player with a 100 million buyout clause be persuaded to stay at Atletico? Could the promise of something special be enough? Have the recent departures of Yannick Carrasco, Nicolas Gaitan and even Miguel Angel Moya released the capital to try and keep him?
Griezmann has been cautious in his responses but has hinted that, if he is happy, it is not impossible for him to continue. Much has been made of the fact that his daughter has just started school in Madrid; much has been made too of what the partnership with Costa is doing and what it may yet do. So there could be a future after all; at least that it’s not so inevitable as it appeared.
Even if it this is just a moment, it is one to be enjoyed and one that, unexpectedly, could have a league title at the end of it. And even if it is just one week, what a week, what a way to build toward Barcelona. Three days, seven goals, two match balls signed and, next, the Camp Nou.
Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.