Suarez late show keeps Atletico on control as La Liga's ludicrous title race goes to the wireRik Sharma
For much of 2021, Atletico Madrid have looked like throwing away their chance at a first league title in seven years.
On Sunday, it was the same story. Until Luis Suarez decided otherwise.
With less than 10 minutes to go in the penultimate round of fixtures, Diego Simeone’s side allowed Zinedine Zidane’s exhausted but relentless Real Madrid to temporarily move top of La Liga and take control of the title race.
But late goals from Renan Lodi and Suarez helped the Rojiblancos to come from behind and beat Osasuna 2-1 at the Wanda Metripolitano, and in doing so kept their fate in their own hands.
Ronald Koeman's Barcelona decisively ruled themselves out of the race with a 2-1 defeat by Celta Vigo in what could be Lionel Messi's final home game at Camp Nou, but there were cheers among partisan journalists in Catalunya as news of Suarez’s goal arrived.
The Catalans decision to allow Suarez to leave for next to nothing has been ridiculed all season, but the Uruguayan’s 20th goal of the season in La Liga may well have denied Barcelona’s bitter rivals Real the title.
Suarez has earned Atletico 19 points with his 20 goals, with no player having a bigger impact in that regard across the division.
It has never just been about the football for Atletico. Simeone always pushes the idea that the club is about values, effort, dedication, loyalty, hard work, family and, yes, suffering.
So that is why fans gathered in the car park to cheer them on against Real Sociedad in midweek, and again here, ensuring their team could hear them from inside the stadium.
They saw them too, outside the Wanda, with fans occupying the surrounding streets, even though they would not be allowed in, letting off flares and trying to create some atmosphere to greet the team bus.
Suarez had the first big chance, the ball falling to him behind the defence, but Sergio Herrera saved the ex-Liverpool star's shot with his feet. The opportunities continued to fall to Suarez, but he could not connect with Mario Hermoso’s low ball into the box.
He continued to knock on the door and struck the post from close range after fine work by Angel Correa, and might have had a hat-trick inside the first half.
After dragging an effort wide of the far post, he kicked out at the electronic advertising hoardings. For now, frustration. Later, elation.
The chances were flowing for Atletico, with Saul Niguez heading over Kieran Trippier’s cross, but Herrera’s net lived a charmed life. So much so that when Stefan Savic broke the deadlock, it did not count either, the defender marginally offside.
Neither did Yannick Carrasco’s, although the offside was clearer this time, as Atletico’s frustration increased.
Suddenly the fans outside the Wanda Metropolitano hushed; Real Madrid had scored away at Athletic Club.
With Zidane’s future being discussed in the Spanish capital and Madrid still suffering from various absences, the circumstances were far from ideal for their trip to the Basque country.
It is to the coach’s credit that they have stayed in the race this far, with Madrid suffering around 60 injuries this season, far more than their rivals. Several players are running on empty.
They complained bitterly when the ball struck Jon Morcillo’s elbow in the box from Alvaro Odriozola’s cross at San Mames, but no penalty was awarded.
Madrid could not create much else in the first half, exhaustion taking its toll, with Athletic’s defence keeping Karim Benzema and Vinicius Junior at arm’s length.
Eventually they got the breakthrough when Casemiro, who had earlier hit the crossbar, crossed and Nacho netted at the back post in the 68th minute.
The defender did not know much about it, but he was in the right place at the right time, as he has so often been this season.
Madrid had the lead, both in Bilbao and in the standings.
Things got worse before they got better for Atletico, with Ante Budimir’s powerful header too much for even the superb Jan Oblak to keep out.
Even with one Atletico goal now, Zidane’s side would be leading on their superior head-to-head record going into the closing weekend. It needed two.
And Atletico finally got them.
Lodi blasted home in the 82nd minute to give the Rojiblancos belief, and Suarez made amends for all his previous misses to send Atletico into ecstasy.
“I knew Atletico were about suffering, but I didn’t realise it was this much,” said Suarez at full-time.