They are known as ‘the cursed ones’ for all the times they have failed to get over the line and Zidane’s side are ready and waiting for a slip-up
Win the game, win the league. Simple, right? For Atletico Madrid, it rarely is. Suffering is in the fabric of the club and coach Diego Simeone plainly admits it.
Suffering, like losing two Champions League finals to arch-rivals Real Madrid, in 2014 and 2016. Suffering, like being 1-0 up against Bayern Munich in the 1974 European Cup final, but conceding a last-gasp 35-yard thunderbolt, then losing the replay.
Atletico president at the time, Vicente Calderon, nicknamed the club ‘El Pupas’, the cursed ones, and it’s stuck.
Time and time again the Rojiblancos have turned victory into defeat like master magicians, something into nothing. So even though they just need one more win in their final game of the season to become La Liga champions, seven years after their 2014 triumph, Atletico fans don’t expect it to be easy.
They’ve held the lead since week 14; what better time to lose it than week 38? After all, Diego Godin thought he had won the Champions League in Lisbon, the clock ticked past the 90, but Sergio Ramos appeared in the 93rd minute to start Atletico’s collapse.
They make the short trip to face Real Valladolid on Saturday, still high on the adrenaline of their 2-1 comeback win over Osasuna last weekend. That game showed the fine line between success and failure, with two goals right at the death snatching a victory which after 80 minutes looked impossible.
Renan Lodi scored his first goal of the season to cancel out Osasuna’s opener and Luis Suarez, after missing several opportunities in the first half, finally got his goal to win it, keeping Atletico in control of the title race.
Madrid, leading in Bilbao, had overtaken them, but by the full-time whistle it was Simeone’s side back on top.
Fans will travel in numbers to Valladolid, even though they can’t enter the ground. They congregated outside the Wanda Metropolitano in Atletico’s previous two matches in a car park, cheering on their team, who could hear them in the concrete bowl.
They go with an endless supply of hope, but not more than an ounce of expectation.
The team that could catch them and has been on their tail for months is Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid, the vulture so often on hand to capitalise at Atletico’s most delicate moments.
Atletico hold a two-point lead on Real, but have a worse head-to-head record. A draw would not be enough, if Madrid beat Villarreal at home.
On the plus side for Atletico, they are facing one of the worst teams in the league, but by that ‘virtue’, Valladolid are also one of the few teams left with something to play for. They are 19th, two points from safety, their fate no longer in their own hands, but needing to win to have a chance of survival.
Presided over by Brazil legend Ronaldo, Valladolid could do his former side a favour by dragging down Atletico so Real Madrid can overtake them and defend their title.
“Ronaldo plays for Madrid,” ran Marca’s front page hopefully on Thursday, recalling his good relationship with Zidane from their playing days at the Santiago Bernabeu.
On the down side, they haven’t been great on the road this season, with 10 wins from 18 matches away from home in La Liga, worse than Real Madrid and Barcelona’s records.
Madrid’s opponents are tougher. Unai Emery’s Villarreal are seventh and would like to seal a return to the Europa League by finishing in the top six. However, they are in this season’s Europa League final on Wednesday against Manchester United.
“On Saturday we will have an eye on the Manchester United game,” admitted the coach. La Liga moved the games forward from Sunday to give Villarreal enough time to prepare for the final, while also hoping to preserve the integrity of the competition in that they might not rotate as much as they would have done.
Villarreal not only need to win but hope Real Sociedad or Real Betis, above them, fail to do so, or else they face a campaign in the UEFA Conference League.
Zidane has done well to take the title race down to the wire, with his teamsheets often in shambles this season because of injuries and Covid-19. Sometimes the bench has been composed of goalkeepers and youths, while he’s rarely been able to field the same starting line-up two games in succession.
There are rumours regarding his future, claiming he will step down at the end of the season, and this title could be his final gift for Madrid.
It could also be Sergio Ramos’s last trophy at the club, with his contract situation unresolved.
If Atletico are viewed as perennially unfortunate, by contrast Zidane has a reputation as one of the luckiest in the game. He has ‘a flower up his a*se’, to literally translate from Spanish – extraordinarily good fortune.
“I may have a flower,” admitted Zidane in April, “but I am not a disaster of a coach.”
Far from it, and he can prove it again on Saturday by defending Madrid’s league title. Zidane needs to take care of business at the Alfredo di Stefano stadium and hope El Pupas pull off their vanishing trick again.