Barça’s fate was in their own hands, which as it turned out was the worst place it could be against Málaga, despite the draw by La Liga title rivals.
Barcelona’s fate was in their own hands, which as it turned out was the worst place it could possibly be. Saturday’s story was the story of the season in Spain: everything changed to stay the same, the table remaining unmoved. Another dead ball, another defender leaping to score, another victory coming for Real Madrid, this time in the city derby – the game the front pages had declared “half the league” only that was not the half of it. Pepe’s header would have been an appropriate way to win their first title in five years but that was not the end and nor even was Antoine Griezmann’s equaliser. Sandro Ramírez’s goal 535km away might have been, though. Or Jony’s. Or Neymar’s red card.
Pepe had long since departed what was likely to be his last game for Madrid to a standing ovation, a hero with one goal and two broken ribs. There were five minutes to go at the Santiago Bernabéu, Madrid were leading 1-0 and it seemed to be all over. Standing on the touchline ready to come on was Alessio Cerci, the man who has not played a minute, whose only headlines came when he preferred pushing a pram round Gran Vía to watching his team-mates and whose name fans chanted against Bayer Leverkusen, pleading with Diego Simeone to bring him on – just for a laugh. But he did not get on then and he did not get on now. All he got was a good view of the goal that momentarily changed everything before he was sent to sit down again.
Ángel Correa slipped a lovely pass into Griezmann and he slipped in the knife, letting the ball run just far enough to evade Keylor Navas and finishing left-footed. He stood before the south end, doing that wiggly hands by his ears thing and pointing at the tape round his ankle – Mia, plus a heart, it displayed, his daughter, one that day – while high in the corner at the other end, a couple of hundred Atlético fans went wild. The rest of the stadium fell silent. At the whistle, Simeone celebrated, shaking his fists wildly before he raced down the tunnel. For the fourth year in a row, Atlético left the Bernabéu unbeaten; there’s always something special about the derby and he probably thought that he had just denied his rivals a title his side has won as many times in the last eight years as they have.
Madrid thought so, too; perhaps more significantly, so did Barcelona.
Cristiano Ronaldo chewed his lip, eyes lost, slowly, unbuttoning his shirt.
Marcelo was gesticulating to Casemiro, furious it had slipped through their fingers. He talked about “errors that can’t happen again.” Again? They could hardly afford for them to happen then, or so they thought. Yes, it was still in their hands but it was now in Barcelona’s hands, too. The gap at the top was three points, with the clásico to come in a fortnight. “I’m disappointed,” Zinedine Zidane said, quietly. Then he added: “but this doesn’t change anything.” Most disagreed; it changed everything. Outside the Bernabéu the streets were strangely silent in the sunshine. It was dark by the time they were revived.
All Barcelona had to do was win the next seven games and they would win the league, no matter what Madrid did. They could even win their next one. It was 5.57pm when Griezmann stood there in front of the south stand; four hours, 10 minutes later to the south, the Rosaleda roared as Neymar trudged towards the touchline, shaking his head, pausing to applaud the fourth official as he disappeared down the tunnel. In bars, restaurants and homes across Madrid they were applauding, too. Barcelona were 1-0 down, defeat closing in, their rivals’ lead remained.
The opening goal had been scored by a former Barcelona player, Sandro, his ninth of the season – in the Barcelona squad, only Leo Messi and Luis Suárez have more than him, while Paco Alcácer has only three – and he did celebrate it. So did Madrid fans. Now they were celebrating again.