Barely a week has
gone by this season without Diego Simeone pronouncing his mantra of “one
game at a time” and now it really rings true, with Atletico Madrid one
match away from winning La Liga.
If they beat Real Valladolid on Saturday, they will be crowned
champions for the first time since 2014 and few could argue given they will
have been top of the table since December.
But Real Madrid are lurking, only two points behind, and
ready to dip their neck over the line at the last moment. They have not led La
Liga since October 17.
Real Madrid will have to win at home against Villarreal to
have any chance but the omens looks good for Zinedine Zidane’s side, given
their opponents may not be at full strength.
A draw for Atletico could mean the top two are tied on
points but that would see the trophy returned to Real Madrid, who would sneak
it on head-to-head.
In some ways, Atletico might benefit from the situation
being clear. They will almost certainly have win to claim the title and can
look for victory from the start.
Valladolid might have been relegated already had results gone against them last weekend but instead they are still fighting to be the one team out of three that survives.
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Huesca and Elche are the others scrapping to finish 17th,
with both of them two points ahead of Valladolid, the trio sandwiched between
already-relegated Eibar and Getafe, who are safe.
It means only a win will give Valladolid hope, a scenario
that could play into Atletico’s hands if it encourages their opponents to
attack, opening the spaces that were denied by the defensive approach of
Osasuna, who so nearly spoiled Atletico’s chances last weekend.
Luis Suarez’s 88th-minute winner, which completed a stunning
turnaround after Renan Lodi equalised only six minutes before, had the feeling
of a pivotal moment, a dramatic twist to prove decisive in who harnesses the
Yet Real Madrid’s priority on Sunday was survival and they
beat Athletic Bilbao at San Mames to take Atletico to the last day, when the
tension will be at its highest.
Simeone admitted “anxiety exists” among his
players but in 10 years in charge he has tried to expunge the fatalist
tendencies that haunted the club for so long.
Real Madrid have benefitted before, when Atletico conceded
in the 93rd minute in the 2014 Champions League final in Lisbon and lost in
extra-time. Atletico went close in the 2016 final in Milan too, only to be
beaten by Real Madrid on penalties.
Now Simeone’s team are within touching distance again, the
difference this time that Real Madrid have no control, their own success now
depending on what happens at the Jose Zorrilla stadium, 200 kilometres away.
Win or lose, it could be Zidane’s final game in charge and
there are serious doubts around the future of Ronald Koeman as well, ahead of
Barcelona’s last match against Eibar.