Four points separate teams from fifth to 15th in one of the closest seasons in recent history.
This week Atletico Madrid eliminated the dynamic Bayern Munich team in the Champions League semi-final, 2-2 on away goals. They achieved this mostly by pressing without the ball and defending for their lives.
In a week in which our darlings Leicester City have very movingly won the 2016 English Premier League, it might be passé to hark back to Atletico to provide our feel good, against-the-odds stories.
They achieved something similar to Leicester in the Spanish league in 2014, outlasting the two richest, most spoiled clubs in history, Barcelona and Real Madrid, to become the champions of Spain.
Any team can be an idea, an identity. Atletico are an idea, and a particularly strong one now that the 2015-16 season is winding down and they find themselves favourites to become European champions.
Atletico Madrid is the best of human endurance that can take any hardship, that will not submit and die no matter what insurmountable obstacle is in front of us.
The current era heavily features three clubs, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, who have packed all of world football’s major stars into only a couple of unbeatable teams. Genius cartoonist David Squires calls this the Starf*cker Model.
It is both exhilarating to see these dream teams in action, and boring for long-term uncertainty. Bayern have qualified for five consecutive Champions League semi-finals, Real six. Neither team has shone in this year’s Champions League. Not to worry – they can simply trip over into the semis these days (or the final, in Real’s case).
Yet Atletico Madrid have eliminated the invincible Barcelona and Bayern Munich in succession. In both away matches they clung on, and then imposed their fierce will onto their home games. They were heavily favoured by the away goals rule in both confrontations.
The Spanish (Madrid-based) sports paper Marca described Atletico after their breathless, single-minded victory over Bayern: “A great team who never stopped believing they could be the best in Europe despite budgets, superstars, and other factors. A group who know their limitations and play every ball as if it were their last. Atletico Madrid, even though it hurts many to hear it, are the team which questions the ‘status quo.'”
The rugged team can be summed up by two characters, South Americans Diego Simeone, the transformative manager, and defender Diego Godin, scorer of crucial goals in 2014 for club and country.
Meanwhile, the 2014 team has mostly been whitewashed by new and old Spaniards willing to give their life for the match they are playing: midfielder Koke, slaloming goalscorer Saul, the bizarrely suddenly serviceable Fernando Torres and unexpected French goalscoring hero Antoine Griezmann, who netted the header that condemned Barcelona in the quarter-final and the unerring slot past German keeper Manuel Neuer to win the semi-final.
Otherwise, there is a lot of running and a lot of suffering, from a team that will take it, and take it, and take it, but will not lose.
There is not so much in life that replicates the intense feeling of trying to defend a narrow lead against a marauding opponent. You are buggered and sweating and wondering how you’ll be able to keep running for the last seven or 20 minutes. Physically you wonder how you will lift your feet and swing through the ball with enough conviction to, say, keep up with an attacker, to energetically block the next shot.
That is only the physical side of things. Just as oppressive is the mental aspect, the sheer fear of losing a lead that your side has worked so hard to achieve. There is the stubborn pride that you will resist the opposing players shouting that they are coming for you. The feeling afterwards when you pull off the win, especially if there is a sealing counter-attacking goal at the end, is divine.
It helps if your goalkeeper is unbeatable behind you. He can bail you out of your worst moments. It was thought that Atletico’s terrible loss to Real Madrid in the 2014 Champions League final and the exit of previous lynchpin in goal Thibault Courtois would spell the end of Atletico’s defensive base, starting all the way back to the keeper.
Instead replacement Slovenian Jan Oblak prevented Atletico’s probable loss to Bayern Munich in the semi-final second leg by extraordinarily saving Thomas Mueller’s fast, hard-to-reach penalty.
Personally, I find Real Madrid intolerable. They are the anti-Atletico, the team who will not sweat anything when they can wheeler deal behind the scenes. It has bitten them for a decade, but they were still able to agonisingly defeat Atletico in the last minute of the 2014 Champions League final.
Here is hoping the 2016 rematch rewards conviction rather than old money.