“We’ve had spectacular 2020,” said Koke Resurrección, which might not have fit the public mood exactly but maybe that was because there was still no public at all. There hadn’t been since the time they went to Liverpool nine months earlier, a night so good that Marcos Llorente got a puppy and called it Anfield. Since then, there had been silence. The very next afternoon, the doors closed, staying that way for 93 days. And although they reopened for the players, sent into a strange, sterile new world, they didn’t for the people, some of whom would never come back. Some 264 games had been played in empty grounds in Spain’s first division alone and now here was Atlético’s captain on the penultimate day of the worst year, standing before another 68,456 empty seats.
There was no one there to see the message displayed on the giant screen way above his head, no one for the man it celebrated to lead, as much conductor as coach. Atlético Madrid’s final game of 2020 was Diego Simeone’s 500th as manager. “Incredible,” Koke called it. A lot has happened since he took over in January 2012, and a lot has changed. The old place has gone for a start, reduced to rubble and replaced. Real Madrid and Barcelona have been through seven managers each, Valencia have had 16. There may well never have been a coach who identified with and changed a club like Simeone changed Atlético: so quickly, so completely, so lasting. “He’s brought stability,” Koke said. He has brought success too. A Copa del Rey, two Europa Leagues, two European Cup finals and one league title.
The year closes with an unusual league table, and uncertainty on and off the pitch, the hope of something better. If only because it could hardly be worse, or could it? Fans were allowed in, depending on the region, from the Second Division B down, which provided a desperately needed reminder of what everyone was missing, but which proved to be brief and although a vaccine turned up this week their return is not close in primera. The Basque derby was played at an empty San Mamés on New Year’s Eve morning: Real Sociedad and Athletic still don’t know if and when they’ll play last year’s Cup final and whether there will be anyone there, still less who will reach this year’s. No one knows who will finish where in the league either, just four points between the teams in ninth and 18th, the last of the relegation spots, three between eighth and third.
Top of them all are Atlético. As Koke stood there on Wednesday night, down by the east coast Real Madrid were just about to kick off. “Let others talk about referees to others,” Casemiro insisted afterwards, handing over to Thibaut Courtois to do just that after a second-half penalty saw Elche end Madrid’s six-game winning run. Scored by Fidel Chaves who, yes, is a left-winger, that goal allowed Atlético to end 2020 two points clear of Real with two games in hand, nine ahead of Real Sociedad, Sevilla and Villarreal. “Since the lockdown, we all took a step forward,” Koke said. They have played 25 league games since the return and lost just one.
Inevitably, that was in the derby and there was something familiar about this too; about the whole round of games, in fact. From Huesca playing well but losing again – “we leave every game with the other team’s congratulations but not the points,” Míchel complained after losing 2-1 at Celta. “I don’t give a shit about people saying we’re good” – to Iago Aspas tearing another team apart. He has more goals than anyone else and more assists too, Chacho Coudet insisting after: “Our fans can raise a new year’s glass a little more relaxed now.” From Unai Emery going back and getting beaten, his Villarreal team ending an 18-game run without a loss at Sevilla, to José Luis Morales smashing in an absurd shot. Two of them, in fact. To Betis letting in those and two more, Manuel Pellegrini’s team racking 30 conceded already, the sooner this is behind them the better.
Behind all of us, in fact – even if centre-back Aissa Mandi insisted: “Forget 2020? No. What we have to do is learn from it.”
Even Cádiz and Valladolid drawing 0-0 was pretty predictable. Then there was Granada never giving up and Valencia blowing up: a goal up at Los Cármenes, they scored an own goal, got two red cards and conceded a last-minute winner to 38-year-old Jorge Molina, the man who has turned back time. While all that was going on Villarreal, who seem to be pretty much trolling them now, announced the signing of Étienne Capoue from Watford: the midfielder whose signing Valencia manager Javi Gracia had set up to try to plug the hole left by the departures of Dani Parejo and Francis Coquelin who had both left for … Villarreal. Valencia, assets stripped, are level with the relegation zone. “Of course it’s worrying,” captain José Luis Gayá said. “We’re in a delicate situation and have to be aware of that. If this was a final we couldn’t afford to lose, imagine what the next game is like.
If all that somehow felt familiar, so too did this. For the 18th consecutive time, on Wednesday night Getafe had faced Atlético and been unable to get a goal. Aggregate score: 34-0. As for Atlético, they had another 1-0 win. Another set piece, another header, and another clean sheet. Luis Suárez scored the goal. He has scored eight so far this season, starting with those two against Granada, another reason to believe this might just be the best chance that Atlético have ever had to win the league – including the year they actually did.
One thing’s for sure: long after most men are long gone, the doubts that surrounded even him blown away, Simeone has built another team to compete. Diego Costa leaving means there are only two men left from the side that won the 2014 title: Koke and José María Giménez. These are different players with a different profile, although there’s something of the old Atlético too.
Not that they’re perfect and there are issues, potential weaknesses. Costa might have been useful: he offers qualities that Suárez can’t, might well have had more of a role than he feared, and the Uruguayan won’t be able play every minute. And the ban for Kieran Trippier puts a big hole in their side. There is a reason he had played every single minute this season in the league and the Champions League, and the alternatives don’t convince. Only one man had played at right-back until Wednesday night, when three of them did.
But if Atlético have doubts – they will try to sign a replacement striker – and if Real Madrid’s recent form has been ominous, one thing they probably don’t have to worry about is Barcelona. This week Lionel Messi described the way they let Suárez go for free, paying up his contract, as “madness”. Suárez is now 10 points ahead of his former teammates, with a game in hand. He has eight goals. Antoine Griezmann has three, Martin Braithwaite has two, Ansu Fati is injured, and on Tuesday Messi sat watching from the stands as Eibar came to the Camp Nou and took a point for the first time.
Pressing Ronald Araujo, stealing possession and running through to bend it beyond Marc-André ter Stegen, Eibar’s opening goal was scored by another former Middlesbrough striker, Kike García – who has scored as many as Griezmann and Braithwaite put together. It was the ninth time Barcelona have trailed this season. Of those 27 potential points, they have won seven. They had scored more than three a game on average against Eibar at the Camp Nou; this time they had to settle for one, scored by Ousmane Dembélé. Beaten four times already, Barcelona haven’t won half their games and have dropped 20 points.
“Another disaster!” shouted the front of Sport. “Damned year,” declared the cover of El Mundo Deportivo. “This,” AS insisted, “was a portrait of their year.” Marca moaned: “Changing the duvet cover is more interesting than watching this side.” The team that started 2020 top, sacked their manager, suffered the most humiliating defeat in their history and sacked another one, are not in a Champions League place 12 months on. “Nothing is impossible in life but we have to be realistic: winning the league is very difficult now,” Ronald Koeman said but Messi said it better. At the full-time whistle on the last game of 2020, he turned his back and walked out.