Luis Suarez puts Atletico on brink of thrilling La Liga title as Barcelona regret letting him go


Wait, what? You think it’s over? You really think that because Atletico Madrid only need to beat bottom-three Real Valladolid to win their third La Liga title in 44 long years, and that because they Harry Houdini-ed their way out of frightful peril at the weekend, we’ve already had our last Glenn Close “She’s not dead yet!” twist in the tale?

Where on earth have you been these past few years? Are you serious? This is Spain. Literally anything could happen on Saturday when the reigning champions, Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid, host the Yellow Submarine out of Villarreal and champions-elect Atleti drive 120 minutes northwest to creaking, crumbling Valladolid. A win would guarantee them being crowned champions — where, in fact, any result that matches Madrid’s will have the same effect.

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The subplot to which I hope to be the first to lay claim is that Florentino Perez, Madrid’s haughty billionaire president, calls the president of Valladolid, one Ronaldo Nazario de Lima, and tells him: “Ronnie, it’s Atleti, and I need Valladolid to beat them. Get your boots out and pull those shorts on again!”

Ronaldo remains one of Perez’s great deals. Straight off the “Galactico” conveyer belt, the Brazilian striker was a mesmerisingly brilliant footballer who used to cut corners in training and who put the “When can we have the next one?” in fiesta. He also remains someone for whom Madrid’s president has massive affection. Little wonder.

I’m telling you right now, Ronaldo (once “O Fenomeno” but now “El Presidente” at the 92-year-old club he owns) was so talented that if he registered himself in time and donned one of the moderately more roomy first-team strips, he probably could nick a goal or two against Atleti next weekend despite being 44 and gently moving in body shape towards his permanently larger-than-life personality. This is Spain, don’t rule it out.

And if you think that I’m being too fanciful, then let me just add fuel to your fire by saying it’s only a little more ridiculous than the Luis Suarez scenario. I only hope that the halfwit who forced the Uruguay forward out of Camp Nou last August, former Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu, was watching as the Blaugrana made a catastrophe out of losing at home to Celta Vigo while Suarez produced one of the great moments of recent Spanish football.

One of this sport’s true beauties, one of the things that makes us so addicted, is that it creates theatrical drama that cinema and TV struggle to realistically emulate. And that’s what happened on Sunday.

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The morning dawned with headlines across Spain quoting Suarez complaining that during his last few months at Barcelona, he constantly had to listen to those who employed him telling him — or, worse, making snide remarks behind his back — that: “I wasn’t able to compete for important trophies and that I was no longer fit for the top level.”

Mingled in with Suarez’s gleeful but-look-at-me-now! tone came the phrase from his present manager, Diego Simeone: “We are entering the Luis Suarez zone.” Atleti’s manager was underlining that his meaty, built-for-battle forward was precisely the sort of player upon whom you’d stake your life when the chips were down. The Argentinian coach would prove to be right, too.

During Osasuna’s downright stubborn, unmannerly decision to try to ruin not only Atleti’s weekend but their entire season, things got down and dirty. Early in the match, Suarez was merely moving through the gears to ramming speed, it would transpire, but he hit the keeper, hit the post and was caught offside in scoring positions which did Simeone’s blood pressure no favours.

Up in Bilbao, Madrid were drawing. No goals had been exchanged and Athletic Bilbao were looking as if they would be just delighted to trip up Los Blancos again, having knocked Zidane’s side out of the Spanish Supercopa semifinal in January.

Then, suddenly, a cascade of lava-like drama erupted and kept on sputtering out fiery goblets for the final 22 minutes of Sunday’s football.

At San Mames, an overly elaborate corner routine eventually found young Rodrygo, who’d scored last week from a similar position, on the ball in Athletic’s penalty area. Knowing his place in the hierarchy, he shunted the ball about three metres right to Casemiro instead of shooting. The Godfather of Madrid’s Brazilian clan slashed a Hail Mary effort across the front of Unai Simon’s goalmouth. Karim Benzema, hugely offside, was momentarily tempted by his predator instincts but, instead, let his brilliant analytical brain dominate innate reactions. He stayed stock still and didn’t touch the ball, thus keeping out of the action and rendering his offside immaterial, allowing Nacho to neatly knee the ball in.

There’s a momentary hiatus while the VAR computers have another of football’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” moments, but “Hal” says: “It’s OK, Dave, the goal must stand.” Once all that reviewing is done, there are fewer than 22 minutes left.

At that stage Madrid and Atleti are tied on 81 points, meaning Los Blancos are top and will win the title if it remains tied the following week because they have an aggregate 3-1 lead over Atleti in the two derbies they played this season. The baseline numbers, 37 weeks into the season, are just remarkable. With Madrid 1-0 up and Osasuna drawing 0-0 at Atleti, La Liga’s top two sides have identical games won, drawn and lost while their goals-scored/conceded reads: Madrid 65/27, Atleti 63/23.

Then, suddenly, Ruben Garcia unleashes his left boot. He’s terrifically gifted off that foot, but you might not actually it consider his special one. And why not? On the outside of his right thigh he’s got a stunning tattoo of Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck — the Joker.

The Valencian identifies with Phoenix’s version of Joker because, as he explained this season, “Arthur Fleck was a victim despised by society. The conclusion from that film is that we must support those who suffer from a mental illness or who are more vulnerable”. Garcia also happens to be one of the most strident and bravest football voices on the subject of empathy and tolerance: “I want all boys and girls to be treated with gender equality and not have to look at whether the person they have fallen in love with is male or female. Perhaps no footballers have ‘come out’ because they are afraid of not being accepted. If a teammate told me that he was homosexual, I’d encourage him to speak out publicly and help normalise it.”

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Gab and Juls believe Zinedine Zidane can leave Real Madrid with “his head held high” if he departs in the summer.

Bravo, Ruben. This is an afternoon for special footballers.

His booming cross soars over Stefan Savic and Renan Lodi at the back post, where the “Swan of Zenica,” Ante Budimir, is gliding in. The Croatia international signed on loan from Mallorca last summer, immediately contracted COVID-19, didn’t play or train with his teammates until the end of October and, on debut, scored in a 3-1 defeat to Atleti. He then scored nine more times before Sunday, eight of them coming in victories, one in a draw, making him the principal reason Osasuna are comfortably staying up.

As I mentioned, this afternoon is for special players.

Budimir smashes a header in towards Jan Oblak’s right-hand post and the guy who’s faced the most shots yet conceded the fewest goals per minute this season is beaten. We require football’s version of Hal the Computer to confirm it but VAR proves that the ball is clearly over the line before Oblak paws it away.

Madrid 1-0 up, Atleti 1-0 down. Suddenly it looks like utter disaster for Simeone, Suarez and Los Rojiblancos. Banana-skin match? An entire plantation.

Up in Bilbao, Madrid’s subs, seated in the San Mames tribune above the dugout, celebrate and try to communicate to the rest of the squad. “Atleti are losing!” Back in his Barcelona penthouse overlooking the south of the city, ex-President Bartomeu is praying — Atleti stumbling and Suarez not scoring is partial redemption for him.

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Sadly for Barto, Simeone has shrugged off his straitjacket of conservatism. For once, Atleti’s manager makes not only shrewd but attacking substitutions. On come Joao Felix and Lodi, plus Hector Herrera and Moussa Dembele. Wit, width, wisdom and “watch out, here comes a big bear of a centre-forward.”

With eight minutes left and the title slipping out of view, Atleti level it. Lodi rampages forward down the left wing and Joao Felix dinks a lovely little sand-wedge ball into his path. The Brazilian instinctively looks for Suarez but he’s offside. Lodi pretends he’s going to centre it but, instead, launches a shot high into the Osasuna net and it’s 1-1. Mayhem erupts. Suarez doesn’t waste time remonstrating with the teammate who hasn’t passed to him (for once) and rushes to collect the ball nestling behind Sergio Herrera.

Simeone’s subs have tipped the game, and the title chase, on its head. But, so far, we haven’t been in the Suarez zone — “El Pistolero” has hit the keeper, hit the post and picked the ball out of the opposition net to hurry things up.

Five minutes later, Lodi erupts forward again. Where has this been all season?

The ball flows from left to right on the pitch and, suddenly, Yannick Carrasco is in the penalty area — threatening. They key here is that Dembele is in the centre-forward position, tying up two Osasuna defenders. Suarez, his lizard brain working without thought, pure instinct, has held back — his position is perfect if the Belgium winger delivers a cut back … and he does.

Who among you is surprised that the man Barcelona pushed out, the man who Lionel Messi believes could have helped the Blaugrana win this league, simply stepped onto the chance and buried it in the bottom corner? No one? Thought not.

Forced out of Barcelona, Luis Suarez has Atletico Madrid on the verge of their first La Liga crown since 2014. David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

Suddenly, everyone who’s collecting a salary from Atleti is running and shouting and bumping into one another. Suarez is at the bottom of a dangerous-looking pile-on — it’s a heap of writhing limbs, a collision of five octopi would probably look like this. Simeone suddenly assumes his “minimise risk” personality again. He’s screaming at his assistant, Nelson Vivas, to get Geoffrey Kondogbia stripped and ready to come on in order to use up some time. Vivas, in the bedlam, is completely confused.

Madrid win, Atleti win and Osasuna stumble off looking bemused and unimpressed by destiny intervening. La Liga moves forward to its “And Then There Was One” weekend. And here’s the thing about all great sporting drama: Like the tension in a Hitchcock movie, it’s not best when it’s unexpected; it’s best when you want it to come, you see how it might come but it seems implausible — perhaps even impossible.

The thing about this particular drama is that everyone saw it coming — Suarez, Simeone and me, to name but three. Everyone except Bartomeu.

Last summer he was picking senior players at the Camp Nou to tell: “You won’t have to put up with Suarez anymore, I’m in charge and he’s out.” It was an act of ego, an act of football vandalism and it has played a huge part in costing Barcelona the title. The Uruguay international’s 23 combined goals and assists across 2,400 La Liga minutes mean he’s created or scored one every 105 minutes on average. That’s a remarkable return for a guy who his former club treated like dirt and pushed out the door. More fool Bartomeu, more fuel for Atleti.

It’s not done yet, but unless Valladolid have the surprise of all surprises in store for us on Saturday (with or without President Ronaldo up front), then there will be red-and-white ribbons on the trophy and it’ll be Suarez 1-0 Bartomeu.

See you at the winner-takes-all weekend. It won’t be for the faint of heart — or friends of Barcelona’s former president.



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