TThe last time Luis Suárez was on the Camp Nou pitch, one sunny afternoon in September last year, he was with Lionel Messi, Gerard Piqué, Sergio Busquets, Sergi Roberto and Jordi Alba, all five surrounded by trophies: four trophy leagues , four Cups, a European Cup, a Spanish Super Cup, a European Super Cup and a Club World Cup. The next time I do it should be a big step towards another League, but not for everyone.
On Saturday Suarez returns to the stage as a rival, facing Barcelona for the first time since he was forced to leave and signed for Atlético de Madrid. He does it as the top scorer, with 19 league goals, and with Atlético at the top, where he has been for five months.
“It will be strange for him and for our players,” said Ronald Koeman, “but it is not something to stay and everyone will give it their all.” So much more now. If emotion was to be expected – Messi responded to Suárez’s departure by writing: “How difficult it is going to be not to share every day with you; It will be strange to see you wearing a different shirt, even more so to play against you ”, the edge was not, the importance of the occasion. Nobody imagined it that way, but during the last month he has begun to feel that the whole season has been building towards this: an all or nothing, the weekend that decides his destiny.
They lose, and Atlético will not be leaders for the first time since December, leaving Barcelona at the top three games from the end, in a position from which Koeman believes he will be ready to claim the title. They would also leave Real Madrid with the title in their own hands. Win, instead, and Atlético would be on the brink of the first title since arriving here on the last day seven years ago.
At his training ground before the last session, he hung up a banner. “A goal to remember, another feat to make history,” he ran, seeking inspiration from Diego Godín’s header that earned him the title at the Camp Nou in 2014.
Sevilla don’t even get a mention there, but they should, despite the fact that their bid was damaged by an unexpected home loss to Athletic Bilbao on Monday. The league hasn’t been this tight since 1984. With four games remaining, four teams can still win it. Atlético leads with 76 points, Madrid and Barcelona with 74, Seville with 70. On Saturday Atlético goes to Barcelona; On Sunday Sevilla will go to Madrid. At 11 o’clock, if it is not clear who the chosen champions are, it should at least be clear who they are not. For much of the season, there was only one.
When Atlético beat Cádiz at the end of January, it appeared everywhere. They had lost once in 19, winning 16, and were 10 points behind Madrid and Barcelona, 11 from Seville, with one game less. No champion had ever bridged such a huge gap. Madrid had just been defeated by Levante, their fourth defeat: “On your knees” read a cover.
Barcelona had also been beaten four times and, although they improved, Koeman admitted: “We are not in a position to win much.” The following week, Atlético conceded the last-minute draw to Celta, the beginning of a streak in which they lost as many points in four games as in the previous four months: two draws and one defeat in 12 games. There hasn’t been a total collapse since then, but they have lost five more points in the 11 games that followed, including an 88th-minute draw against Madrid and a 1-0 loss to Sevilla.
Meanwhile, Madrid and Barcelona recovered, while quietly, almost unnoticed, Sevilla got into position. Madrid is undefeated since that defeat against Levante, 14 games. Barcelona turned 19 years without defeat until last week when they lost 2-1 to Granada, four days after Atlético’s defeat at Athletic and, therefore, just when they could have reached the top for the first time, destiny in your own hands. The next morning, the two Catalan sports newspapers ran with “unforgivable.”
Koeman says that if Barcelona win their remaining games, they will win the league, but that’s not necessarily true. Madrid’s head-to-head advantage means that a Barcelona win over Atlético would perversely put Madrid in control, leaving them in a position where they could win every game they have left and still take the title. They would probably need the help of Sevilla, in other words.
That may be presumptuous anyway. Gerard Piqué admitted that under normal circumstances he would back whoever came out of the top this weekend to win the League, but not this time. All four have lost points in the last fortnight alone. Sevilla lost on Monday, Barcelona the Thursday before, Atlético the Sunday before and Madrid the night before. There may still be life after Sunday, but this is still the moment. For Suárez above all, although there are many men who can take it away, the prize is at hand.
According to radio station RAC1, Barcelona asked permission to organize a pre-match tribute to Suárez. Despite the photo together on the field, Messi, who himself had wanted to leave, felt that his partner and best friend did not receive the farewell he deserved: “one of the most important players in the history of the club, expelled.”
As for Suárez, he had said that he would not celebrate a goal against Barcelona but that he could “mark a certain place”, hinting at his anger with Josep Maria Bartomeu. With the club under a new president now, there will be no need for that and there is a will to build bridges under Joan Laporta. A tweet from the club described Suárez as “a rival now, but always a friend.” Perhaps they also hope that a pregame tribute can blunt the edge of a footballer sometimes fueled by fury, who Simeone said had been “vindicated” this season, “doing things no one expected of him.” The rewards that await them are enormous, revenge and redemption for all, Seville and Madrid as well, at the end of a season that no one thought would close like this, the tightest in decades.
But then, as Diego Simeone said when remembering that he had never won at the Camp Nou as an Atlético coach, “there is a first time for everything in life.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism