“We’re entering into The Suárez Zone,” Diego Simeone said. Atlético Madrid’s manager knew but even he couldn’t have known it would be quite like this, another story of the absurd in a season built on them. If this was The Suárez Zone, which it was, it was The Twilight Zone too, the implausible unfolding in front of them. With 147 seconds left on the penultimate Sunday there was another twist, delirium inside the Metropolitano where they had just witnessed the Uruguayan score the goal that changed everything, and outside where they hadn’t, but went wild anyway. How could they not? This was his redemption and their resurrection.
Maybe, just maybe, it was the title too, the second of two goals in the last eight minutes that brought Atlético back to defeat Osasuna 2-1 and leave them top of the league with a single match left, their fate back in their own hands, destiny defied once more. Inside the stadium there was mayhem, men running everywhere, not knowing what to do with themselves. Outside, where fans had gathered in Car Park B again, there was an explosion of joy and relief. Somehow Atlético had escaped. Just as it was all slipping through their fingers within touching distance of the finish line, Suárez had appeared.
Simeone had foreseen it. On Saturday, the eve of the penultimate round, knowing that two wins would take them to the title, admitting too that “anxiety exists”, Atlético’s manager handed responsibility to his top scorer. “We’re entering into the Suárez Zone,” he said. “This is the time for a footballer like him to be decisive, the moments the team needs him. He has the leadership and status to do that and he’s used to games like this.”
They needed him now, more desperately than any of them imagined. “We didn’t deserve to be suffering so much,” Suárez said afterwards, but Atlético were suffering. They had flown into their opponents , racking up 15 shots in the first half alone; by the end of the game, it was 26. They hit the post twice, had two goals disallowed, yet still hadn’t scored. Up in Bilbao, meanwhile, Real Madrid just had, Nacho Fernández shinning past Unai Simón to put them top thanks to the rivals’ head-to-head record.
Then with 15 minutes left, Osasuna scored with their first attempt on target, Ante Budimir’s header crossing the line before Oblak could claw it out. Top for five months, , Atlético were second and seemingly sunk. Outside, fans launched into the club’s anthem but this was cruel and, most suspected, it was over. So very Atlético, falling at the last, fate conspiring against them again: for ever El Pupas, the jinxed one. At the side of the pitch, a water break in the evening heat, Simeone gathered his players in a circle. They were 3,317 minutes and 30 seconds into their season and had twelve and a half minutes left to rescue it. “Be strong mentally. Be calm, it will come,” Simeone said, but that didn’t look likely and mostly they looked lost. The chances began to dry up.
Changes were made: Renan Lodi and João Félix came on before Osasuna scored and with 10 minutes left, Héctor Herrera and Moussa Dembélé appeared. Suárez could have scored at 6.39pm, 6.40, 6.44, and 6.46 – Simeone had started praying at that point – and again at 6.51 and 7.39 but still there was no goal, his run without one stretching back seven matches. The tension tore at him with each opportunity, each scream echoing louder than the last, but something must have made him stay.
“Who better to resolve a game that was slipping away from us? I knew something could appear and it did,” Simeone said afterwards. This was a question of faith now, but also of logic. “Get the first, the second will come,” Simeone told his players, and with eight minutes to go, they did. A gorgeous pass from Félix dropped the ball in front of Lodi, who smashed it into the net. The Brazilian led a charge back to the centre circle, finger in the air, a call to arms. On the touchline, the manager tapped at his head. Don’t lose yours. Not yet, anyway.
They were entering the Suárez Zone, clock ticking, pressure building; if it was wild on Wednesday, this might have been worse. In the stands, the substitutes could hardly look. “Wait, wait!” Simeone shouted: don’t just sling it in. “The nervousness can be damaging but there was calmness,” he said, and here at least he was right. The ball came to Kieran Trippier who, pulse slowing, played the pass he has played so often and so well, nudged inside into the area. Yannick Carrasco met it, controlled, stopped, turned, and pulled it back across the area. Stepping back and waiting away from the crowd, Suárez sidefooted into the corner. 87.33, 2-1. Now you can lose your heads.
For a moment at least, everyone did.
There was the tiniest fraction of a delay, video feeds on phones slow, radio broadcasts a step behind the play, the commentators exploding at 500 Gols-per-minute not quite reaching them yet, the anthem inside the arena not yet booming round. And then from outside there was thunder. Inside, Suárez tore off his shirt and waved it in his right hand. He roared, the veins on his neck almost bursting, and sprinted for the corner, team-mates chasing after him. His teammates ran towards him from the pitch, the bench and the stands, down through the gate and along the touchline.
Simeone went one way and then back again, in a big circle like a toy someone had wound up and let go. He was shouting something then he stopped: “it was a moment to think,” he said. Everyone else went to where Suárez was, in the corner nearest to the fans, unseen but heard a hundred metres or so away. Not just players but subs, squad members, staff, the unidentified. More and more of them piled on, impossible to keep count, boots sticking out at every angle, a pair of sliders in there somewhere. Thomas Lemar leapt on in his jeans and white hoodie, great big heart on the front. Carrasco pulled away from the pile and screamed down the camera lens, then lifted Sime Vrsaljko towards the sky.
Suárez was handed a yellow card and immediately withdrawn, José María Giménez at the head of the queue waiting to embrace him. His work was done for one day at least, but theirs wasn’t. How could it be in this league? There were five minutes added, a world of possibilities. One of the assistants was sent off, an extra ball was thrown on, Simeone hopped about, desperately waving his arms like a drowning man, pleading with the referee to blow the bloody whistle, to spare him the madness. He looked exhausted. When Chimy Ávila shot and Oblak saved on 95.13, the manager looked like he had seen a ghost.
At the final whistle, Simeone turned and dashed for the tunnel, but didn’t have the energy to run up the stairs any more. Carrasco slipped to his knees. Somehow it had happened: they were still standing, still first, still there. “Let this article be a message for my loved ones: I’m alive,” wrote Atlético-supporting columnist Iñako Díaz-Guerra in El Mundo. “If Atlético do win this league, anything less than folding and starting again in the regional leagues with no ambition other than having a good time would be an attack on the health of the fans.”
AS’s cover ran with “heart attack.” Marca shouted: “We’re going to faint.” El País called them “the champions of agony”. Outside the fans were singing. “Listen to that,” Mario Hermoso said. It gives me goosebumps. When things go wrong, they carry us. That’s Atlético Madrid, there’s no better expression of it.”
All that and it comes to this, to the very last day. For the fifth game in a row, Atlético had been on the edge in the final minutes and yet they’re still top where they have been for five months, one step away now. If they win against Valladolid next Saturday they will be champions but with Atléti that if weighs heavy; with this season it weighs heavier. Anything can happen – even Atlético winning the league.
Real Madrid held on to win 1-0 at Athletic and refuse to surrender, pursuing their rivals to the last, putting them through it, but the leaders refuse to back down. Asked if he expected to suffer like this, the man who had appeared when they needed him laughed. “Well,” Suárez said, “everyone says so: they say that with Atlético it is written. But no, not this much, no. Yet I’m proud that if you fight, if you struggle, if you never give up, sometimes you can achieve your objective.”
“That’s our life,” Simeone said.