Only Atlético are preventing a one-horse Liga race

Barcelona were held to a draw courtesy of Vicente Guaita’s intervention and Atlético Madrid, who were 11 points behind the Liga leaders not so long ago, have closed the gap to seven. It’s still a considerable distance but it seems like less than it is precisely because the other previous challengers for the title have dropped out of the race. Atlético are now the only opponents to the champions-elect and they will receive support from elsewhere in Madrid, because enemies can sometimes be friends of convenience. “If we beat Barcelona and Madrid beat them too, it’s only one point. And if Barça have dropped points again, at home against Getafe…” Barça remain unbeaten, with 18 wins and five draws, 60 goals scored and 11 conceded but Atlético believe they can catch them. You can see it in the street, and this despite Diego Simeone’s side being a difficult one to fall in love with this season.

Simeone has become accustomed to listening to complaints about his industrial style of football. The cult of sheer effort was greeted well when Atlético were going through lean times. But now, with a Liga title and two Champions League finals in recent years, this plebeian style is starting to grate on many observers. Simeone has doubted himself on occasion and the evidence is clear to see. He has made feints towards a different style, in the signing of certain players and with an occasional flirtation with 4-3-3, but time and again he goes back to basics. For at least three seasons there have been experiments, but they do not last.

Javier Matallanas told me that Simeone’s side are a binary team: 1-0, 0-1… Málaga was the perfect expression of this yearning for more. Antoine Griezmann scored in the opening minute and that was that. It was the shortest game of the season, wrote Kiko. One goal, three points and the rest in the hands of Jan Oblak. The Slovenian can everything but a cold, as the popular refrain goes. A clean sheet means points. So far this season Atlético’s games have reaped 43 goals, both scored and conceded, compared to 71 for Barcelona, 73 for Madrid, 72 for Valencia and 88 for Real Sociedad. Atlético do not gift much in the way of spectacle, but they are the only side pushing Barcelona to the finish line.