Troubles for Barcelona, Real Madrid mean time for Atletico is now
Advantage Atletico Madrid.
In the last five days, La Liga's title race has turned on its head, with Real Madrid ending its 31-game unbeaten run with back-to-back defeats (for the first time in the Cristiano Ronaldo era), while Barcelona jumped into second place but had its win over Celta Vigo come at a cost, with goalkeeper Victor Valdes rules out for the rest of the season with a torn ACL.
Meanwhile, Atletico still leads, one point ahead of Barcelona and three clear of Real Madrid. It is getting increasingly harder for coach Diego Simeone to play down Atletico's credentials, and as Inaki Diaz-Guerra put it in the Spanish publication AS: "The only actual doubt is whether their supporters will survive the nerves until June."
The players certainly are, as Diego Costa's second-half goal proved the difference against Granada. The real drama was elsewhere though; in the first game of the night, Valdes fell awkwardly after saving a free kick in the first half, and, within 12 minutes, was undergoing tests at Creu Blanca hospital. It emerged a few hours later that he had torn his anterior cruciate ligament and faces six months out.
This is Valdes's last season at Barcelona and sadly, his last appearance. This is the game of poker for players who let their contracts run down, and it leaves Valdes in a wretched position: a 31-year-old goalkeeper with a torn cruciate and no deal in the bag.
Monaco was interested, and last week Valdes talked up the Premier League. He is a fantastic goalkeeper and by all accounts a super professional to have around, but his market value will surely drop as a result of the injury. Yet some clubs will certainly be willing to take the risk on him.
Mathieu Flamini, who joined AC Milan and Arsenal on free transfers, admitted earlier this season that it can be a nerve-wracking time: "Most of the time, players prefer security to risk," he told France Football. "When you sign a contract and you leave in the middle, the risk is minimal. But for big things, it is often necessary to take risks."
This time, the risk has not paid off. And where does this leave Barcelona? Twelve months, almost to the day, when Lionel Messi's pulled hamstring ruined its Champions League hopes (OK, it might not have beaten Bayern in the semifinal anyway, but probably would not have lost 7-0 on aggregate), another injury, also to a player seen as irreplaceable, could put the skids on Barcelona's triple challenge: it faces Atletico Madrid in next week's Champions League quarterfinal first leg, and Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey final.
Jose Pinto, the 38-year-old substitute goalkeeper, made a few decent saves after he came on, but they would have been food and drink for Valdes; the Barcelona crowd, fearful of the veteran making an error, turned his regulation saves into something far better. In six seasons at Barcelona, Pinto has never played more than seven matches per campaign and of his four this season, back when Valdes injured his calf on Spain duty in November, Barcelona won three, lost one and conceded four goals.
At that time, Pinto spoke of how self-help books had helped him cope with life on the bench and then, when it comes, in the spotlight. Such is the lot of the second-choice goalkeeper - as examined in this article. Pinto's contract is also up this summer and Barcelona could request a loan goalkeeper to help it out (as Cordoba did this week, signing Sporting's Lopez Garay after Carlos Caballero was injured).
Coach Tata Martino said at a press conference that it would not seek cover, and you have to admire his loyalty to his compatriot. But will it cost Barcelona in the long run? Martino, for all his critics, could win the treble with Barcelona in the next six weeks; or he could end up with nothing. (It was significant that midway through the second half, the Barcelona socios chanted the name of the coach on the sidelines: not Martino, but Celta's Luis Enrique, now the favorite to come in next season.)
Valdes' injury has just made Barcelona's task that much harder. As El Mundo Deportivo put it: "It was one of the saddest nights in recent memory at the stadium."
How Real Madrid copes with the aftermath of its defeat at Sevilla will determine the rest of its campaign too. Before the weekend Clasico, coach Carlo Ancelotti had spoken with certainty that Los Blancos would win the title.
"We need to believe that we can still win it," he said after Sevilla's deserved come-from-behind 2-1 win, its sixth in a row.
"Madrid surrenders the title in three days" wrote Marca.
With an away trip to Real Sociedad in between the Champions League quarterfinal ties against Borussia Dortmund, Madrid could drop even more points - though it would help if all its players were on the pitch. Sevilla's winning goal, which came down its left, came while Gareth Bale was on the sidelines changing his cleats. The clock read 70:34 when Bale went off; the goal went in at 71:53 (from a position where Bale might have been); he came back on at 72:30. Strange.
At least this time the players did not criticize the referee, as they did after the Barcelona loss. It was reported that club captain Iker Casillas tried to stop Sergio Ramos and Ronaldo blaming referee Undiano Mallenco after the clasico.
"What Cristiano said is what 90 percent of the dressing-room think," Ramos said.
The dressing-room struggle between Ramos and Casillas has been a subplot all season; ever since both men addressed the squad after Madrid lost at home to Atletico back in late September. Casillas, El Economista reported, spoke briefly and in general terms. Ramos gave a 25-minute tub-thumping speech and addressed individual players and told them to sort out their issues.
Last week, the Spanish press suggested the tension between the two remained after Ramos gave another interview.
"Casillas is a great captain and I am vice-captain," he told Cadena Cope, "We each have a role to play, although I have known captains who are leaders and others who are not."
Ancelotti will be more worried about Xabi Alonso looking tired, Bale's minimal impact, Madrid's defense without Ramos there and Diego Lopez failing to keep out the two goals. All of this leaves things perfectly poised for the season finale, when Atletico travels to Camp Nou on the last day of the season, potentially needing to avoid defeat to win the title.
Is Atletico ready to cope with the pressure of leading the league with eight games left? Simeone was asked such in a press conference.
"We have to be realistic, in 40 years we've ended as champions once," he said. "To start talking about handling pressure, we need to be in the same position in five games' time. This is a marvelous year, but they will judge us on how it ends, more than what we have done so far."
It's on for Atletico. With Valdes out for Barcelona, and Madrid wobbling, there will be no better chance than now.