Back in February, halfway through the season, Atlético Madrid owed much of what was then an enormous lead atop La Liga’s table to the steady flow of goals from Mr. Dependable, Luis Suárez. During the back half of the campaign, as Atleti coughed up nearly every point of that sizable advantage and turned what could’ve been a blowout title race into what will now end with a photo finish, Suárez’s uncharacteristic failure in front of goal was a major contributor to the collapse. Thankfully for the Colchoneros, with the team’s title dream on the brink of becoming a nightmare on Sunday, Suárez stepped up in the nick of time with a goal that could make all the difference.
Coming into this past weekend’s penultimate round of La Liga play, each of Spain’s Big Three remained in the championship hunt. All the contenders had reached that point in their own way. As mentioned earlier, Atlético had an almost perfect first half of a season, only to follow it up with an awful stretch that encompassed most of 2021. After failing to win only three of their first 19 games while racking up 50 points, 10 more than both Barcelona and Real Madrid, the Rojiblancos went on to drop points in nine of their subsequent 17 matches, doing just enough to maintain a narrow La Liga lead, but with next to no margin of error left.
The trajectory of Barcelona’s season was close to the opposite of Atleti’s. After a truly abysmal start to the Blaugrana season, Barcelona managed to turn things around with a sensational run in the middle of the year, only to begin stumbling once again right on the cusp of what could’ve been its title-sealing closing sprint. Real Madrid’s season was something in the middle—free of any real dazzling highs, but, crucially, without any morale-crushing lows, and enough well-earned confidence and steadiness to somehow find its way in the thick of the championship chase as the finish line approached.
With two matches to go, Atlético entered the weekend in first place with 80 points, with Real in second with 78 (plus tie-breakers over both the other challengers), and Barcelona in third with 76. In a race that felt like it would be won not by the fastest runner but rather the one who managed not to trip over their own feet one last time, any seemed possible.
And indeed, the title scene changed at whiplash pace over the course of the 90 minutes during which the entire league played at the same time on Sunday. About 30 minutes in, Lionel Messi had Barça up on Celta Vigo, while Atleti and Real were still struggling in scoreless draws, giving the Catalan club hope that it might be able to steal the league trophy in spite of its best efforts to throw away its chances over the past month. Ten minutes later, Celta scored an equalizer, and things were back where they started.
Atlético had more than its fair share of golden opportunities to kill Osasuna off during a terrifically dominating first half, but the ball seemed like it simply didn’t want to go in. The second half started with more of the same, and it felt like the winning Atleti strike would come sooner or later (the Rojiblancos did get the ball into the back of the net twice early in the second half, but both goals were ruled offside), until news broke that Real had taken the lead on Athletic Club in the 68th minute, moving the Blancos into pole position. If that wasn’t bad enough, Osasuna then nodded in the match’s opening goal in the 75th minute, and all of the sudden what should’ve been an inevitable if hard-fought Atlético triumph looked headed toward a shocking, title-wrecking failure.
Never ones to lose faith, though, manager Diego Simeone’s men kept pushing forward to try and salvage something from the match. Eventually the equalizer did come from an unlikely source—substitute full back Renan Lodi, surprising the Osasuna keeper by smashing the ball on goal after a gorgeous chipped pass from fellow substitute, João Félix:
Though Lodi’s late goal by itself wasn’t enough to put Atlético back on top of the table (had the match ended a draw, Real and Atleti would’ve been level on points with 81, and Real would have the head-to-head tie-breaker), it did renew the home team’s faith that victory was still possible. Sure enough, after squandering several chances earlier in the match, Suárez found himself set up perfectly inside the box in the 88th minute after some fantastic work by Yannick Carrasco, and the Uruguayan striker did what he still, even at 34 years old, does better than almost anyone:
Atlético signed Suárez last summer so that he and the goals his presence guarantees could push the club over the top, back into legitimate league title condition. For the first half of the season, Suárez proved the move a wise one with 14 goals in 16 appearances, at that point the most in Spain. His faltering pace after that, where he’s only scored six times in 15 league matches since the midway point, raised some doubts as to whether the old striker could pull through for his new club over the whole of a long season. But on Sunday, with a single swing of his foot at the decisive moment, he put Atlético back where he’d worked so hard to get them, on the doorstep of the championship. It might take one more goal against Real Valladolid next weekend to finish the job, but the hardest part of Suárez’s savior act is already complete. All that’s left now is the final feat, and then the celebrations.