Considering their consistent excellence over the last three years, it is no great surprise to see Atletico Madrid standing shoulder to shoulder with Barcelona and Real Madrid in La Liga’s title race.
But the identity of the man who is spearheading their challenge certainly comes as a major shock to the system.
Just a few weeks ago, Fernando Torres was effectively on the scrapheap with his career apparently in irreversible decline. Seemingly unwanted by boss Diego Simeone, he couldn’t even break into the team despite the struggles endured by big-money summer signing Jackson Martinez, and the question of when he would score his 100th goal for Atletico had become a running joke.
Torres reached 99 in a victory over Eibar in September and then, like a nervous batsman on the verge of his maiden Test match century, he got stuck there. For weeks, and weeks.
Eventually, nearly five months later, another meeting with Eibar saw Torres finally break into double figures, and the celebrations that followed among Atletico fans had a sentimental, nostalgic feel, as though they were marking the postscript to the outstanding career of one of their favourite sons.
Since then, however, Torres has enjoyed arguably one of the most spectacular and unexpected renaissances in recent sporting history.
A week after netting his 100th goal, he scored again – a winner at Getafe. Then he got another, giving his team the lead in a 3-1 victory over Valencia which helped seal Gary Neville’s fate at Mestalla.
And now, crazily, Torres just can’t stop, with his classily taken effort in Sunday’s 3-0 home win over Granada marking the first time he has scored in four consecutive games since 2010.
They aren’t just any old goals, either – they are vital strikes for a team which is competing for two of the most prestigious trophies in the world: an equaliser which led to victory at Espanyol, the opener in a home win over Real Betis and, most significantly, a drilled strike against Barcelona which eventually secured passage into the last four of the Champions League.
From being a national joke, he is now being talked about – seriously – as a potential late call-up for Spain’s European Championships squad to solve national coach Vicente Del Bosque’s biggest dilemma: a reliable striker.
For a player who last represented his country nearly two years ago in the disastrous 2014 World Cup campaign and whose international career was widely assumed to be over, the fact he is even being mentioned is a remarkable turnaround.
The former Liverpool and Chelsea striker’s revival tells us a lot about his attitude – the never-say-die spirit which made him such a popular figure with Atletico fans when he first broke into the team as a teenager all those years ago.
It also tells us a lot about Simeone’s ability to extract the utmost out of the players at his disposal. If players are prepared to work hard and buy into his system (Martinez being an example of one who didn’t), Simeone has that knack of making them better than anyone ever thought they could be.
A look at some of the decidedly ordinary players who became Spanish champions with Atletico two years ago (Diego, Adrian, Jose Sosa, Cristian Rodriguez) is enough to prove that point, and Torres is benefitting in the same way.
Now, the striker’s long-term future appears to be safe – his loan deal from AC Milan expires at the end of the season and, until recently, Atletico did not appear to be inclined to keep him. But that has all changed, and a permanent deal is expected to be agreed in the coming weeks.
First, though, he has other things on his mind: trophies. And the way things are going, we shouldn’t rule out the prospect of Torres completing his fairytale comeback by scoring an injury time winner against Real Madrid in the Champions League final.
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DIEGO ALVES (Valencia) – 8.40
Alves was the star of the show in Valencia’s 2-1 victory at Camp Nou. From first minute to last, he epitomised the voracious work ethic of Los Che.
The Brazilian blocked Messi’s volley from close range before somehow leaping to punch away Neymar’s lob which seemed destined to be a goal.
He did brilliantly to produce another point-blank save from Messi, but the Argentinean managed to pounce to score his 450th La Liga goal in the second half.
With a score at 1-2, Alves came to Valencia’s rescue 15 minutes from time with his best save of the night low to his right to prevent Ivan Rakitic equalising.
KARIM BENZEMA (Real Madrid) – 7.50
Karim Benzema overcame the disappointment of being left out of France’s Euro 2016 squad with a goal and two assists as Real Madrid thrashed Getafe 5-1.
The attacker swept home the opener, before his through ball was converted by Isco to give Madrid an imposing lead at the break.
Gareth Bale added a third with a composed left-footed finish from another super Benzema pass five minutes after the break.
Although he won’t be part of Didier Deschamps’ plan, Benzema still has an integral part to play as Real Madrid go in search of European and domestic glory.
DANIEL PAREJO (Valencia) – 7.43
The elusive Parejo stepped up to deliver a commanding display as Valencia beat Barcelona to move up to 12th in La Liga.
A swift move just before half-time saw Parejo break clear and feed Mina to fire home the second goal.
His pace and intelligence bolstered Los Che’s advantage as they stormed to a 10th win this season.
GUILHERME SIQUEIRA (Valencia) – 7.40
Another one of Valencia’s stars on a thrilling night for the club.
Siqueira was a fulcrum in defence and played a hand in Valencia’s opening goal on 27 minutes when his cross was turned into the Barca net by Rakitic.
On loan from Atletico Madrid, Siqueira proved he has plenty to offer in attack and defence.
CARL MEDJANI (Levante) – 7.36
Levante fought back from a goal down to beat Espanyol 2-1 and boost their hopes of avoiding relegation from La Liga.
The man who confirmed victory was Medjani, volleying in Joan Verdu’s free kick just after the hour mark.
With five games remaining, Levante are now 19th – two points off Granada in relegation safety.
Back on March 12, when Barcelona gorged themselves on a 6-0 banquet at home to poor Getafe, they were eight points ahead of Atletico and twelve above Real Madrid. They were basically disappearing over the horizon. That same weekend, Real Madrid struggled to a 2-1 win at Las Palmas, a vague gesture of defiance in a sea of pessimism. Barcelona were unplayable, Leo Messi was alien-like and even Diego Simeone was making noises about the league title being unattainable. Almost five weeks later, and the phrase ‘Hay Liga’ (the league’s back on) is as common as springtime showers, and ‘Hay crisis’ (you can translate that one yourself) is appearing with greater frequency.
As the saying goes – ‘It’s going swell, you’re looking smug/Then lady luck pulls up the rug’. It’s often like that, although Barcelona has not lost three consecutive league games since January 2003. They are allowed this slump, of course – since they are only human (as far as we know). Their 2-1 home defeat to Valencia on Sunday night, hinted at in this column last week, has opened up the league to such an extent that those sentiments of March 12 seem bizarre in retrospect. Like Leicester’s feats in England, no-one saw this coming.
It’s probably pointless to seek any profound footballing reasons for this collapse. If Barcelona’s weaknesses were so obvious, why could no-one exploit them before? The truth seems more prosaic, in the sense that once a great run (39 games in fact) comes to an end, a period of self-doubt often creeps in, unless the reversal is immediately put to bed. After their El Clasico defeat, Barcelona didn’t, and the psycho-emotional effects of suddenly discovering that you’re mortal again have hit Barcelona in their collective solar-plexus. When Valencia went 2-0 up on Sunday night, you felt there was no way back. Leo Messi cut the deficit in the second-half by ending his personal goal drought and scoring his 500th for club and country, but it was an effort destined to be buried in the otherwise general negativity of the Catalan day.
La Liga as it stands...
Valencia were always going to be an awkward opponent, despite their league position. They needed the points, were playing their second game under a new manager (the Basque quiet man, Pako Ayesteran), and possess real quality in their ranks. Like Real Madrid in the Camp Nou, they massed the defensive walls and invited Barcelona to attack, but were lighting quick on the counter, offering options to the player in possession by suddenly breaking from midfield in various directions. It paid off handsomely, because the hosts had neither the wit nor luck to break down the focused bus-parking of their opponents. The late chance that fell to Gerard Pique would probably have found the net if it had landed at Luis Suarez’ feet, but lady luck – so often an ally of Barcelona – is currently deserting the Catalans. They also look a little jaded and strangely one-dimensional (an odd phrase to use in relation to them), accumulating a massive statistical superiority in terms of possession, but never really translating it into goals. Neymar seems tetchy and unsporting, Messi a little less clear than usual, and Suarez is simply being crowded out. Did they peak too early? Possibly.
Nevertheless, if they were to win their remaining five matches, neither of their Madrid-based pursuers could overtake them, even if they took maximum points too from what is left. But there is a further problem for Barcelona, quite apart from the fact that both Atletico and Real are coming back to form at the very moment that their crisis has struck. The problem is that their five remaining games are all against sides that are still mathematically threatened with relegation. This might seem like an unnecessary piece of doom-mongering, but the midweek visit to Deportivo, the league’s draw specialists (17 ties so far), is another tricky one given the Galician side’s need for three points to secure the (psychological) safety total of 41. They will need to recover from the nightmare of recent weeks if they are to avoid dropping further points. After that, they play (in order) Sporting, Betis, Espanyol and Granada, four teams whose top-flight status is still not secured. At this stage of the season, these are always the most awkward games.
Wednesday night, in actual fact, could well be the season’s decisive evening. Real Madrid have a tricky one too, at home to Villarreal – although the latter lost to Rayo Vallecano on Sunday night and are now looking nervously over their shoulders at Athletic in fifth place. Real Madrid will not expect the easy ride given to them by neighbours Getafe. Atletico also has the most awkward game of their remaining fixtures, away to the aforementioned Athletic Bilbao, on fire in the league and desperately unlucky to go out of the Europa League to Sevilla last Thursday. After that, it looks fairly plain-sailing for Simeone’s men, in a state of seemingly invincible euphoria after their tactical destruction of Barcelona last week – the chronicle of a result foretold. And as my friend the barman said to me on Sunday night as the final whistle blew at the Camp Nou, ‘Va a ganar la Liga Atletico’ (Atletico are going to win the league title). I nodded in agreement; one because he knows his football, and two because it would hardly be a reckless decision to place a bet on Atletico winning the double.
Nothing seems to faze them. Fernando Torres is enjoying an unlikely return to form, Antoine Griezmann is being talked about as ‘the third man’ (behind Ronaldo and Messi), and nobody seems able to get the ball past Jan Oblack, the Slovenian sentry. Atletico has only conceded 16 goals in the league, a remarkable feat in 33 games. In fact, if anyone can beat Bayern Munich, it’s Atletico. Pep Guardiola won’t fancy it at all.