There wasn’t even time to pose the question following Atlético’s 1-0 victory over Real.
“Before you ask, the league is over,” Zinedine Zidane admitted after Antoine Griezmann’s 53rd-minute goal made Atlético the first team in history to win three successive league games away to Real and left the home side with a virtually impossible task to take the title.
The result also appeared to open up divisions in the team with Cristiano Ronaldo later forced to clarify comments in which he claimed that: “If everyone was at my level maybe we would be first.” The Portuguese attacker spoke at the Bernabéu after the game only to subsequently issue a statement in which he claimed that he had only been talking about his physical condition. “I am not better than any of my team-mates,” it said.
By then, the damage had been done – on the pitch at least. Real’s coach insisted that his side would not give up, as if trying to distance himself from his opening statement, but he had been right the first time and it was clear that he considers performances in the league more about preparing for Europe than they are about chasing a title that, barring a miracle, is beyond them now.
It is still February but a solitary league title in eight seasons does not just look possible, it looks probable after Antoine Griezmann’s second-half goal gave Atlético a victory here that leaves Real four points behind their city rivals and, more importantly, nine points plus a +4 head-to-head goal difference behind Barcelona, who play Sevilla on Sunday night. Nor is it just the stats; it is the sensations this game left.
After his first defeat as Real manager, Zidane talked about the need for his players to be “professional”. The words appeared telling; there was the hint here that he did not think they had been. He also insisted that he would back them and they that would back him, talking about the need for togetherness, only to discover that at around the same time Ronaldo appeared to attack his own team-mates.
Ronaldo was talking about the impact of Madrid’s injuries when he appeared to question the quality of the men in reserve. “I don’t want to say that Jesé, Lucas and Kovacic are not good players; they are very good,” Ronaldo said, “but …” He also said: “If every player was at my level, maybe we would be top.” It was a remark that, although he later sought to clarify it, may prove as damaging as it was disparaging; it terms of form, right now it may not even be true.
There were further hints of problems. Zidane called Real’s problems “mental”, not just physical, and his every word hinted at irritation with his players; he bemoaned a failure to run, to put their foot in, to take chances. “Next year maybe there will be changes,” he said, adding: “maybe they’ll change the coach.” While Atlético’s coach Diego Simeone described his side as one with a “clear identity”, Real seem to have none. Instead, there was a sense of disintegration and division after this defeat.
At full time, there were whistles of protests from some fans at the Bernabéu, and chants for the president, Florentino Pérez, to resign – 10 years to the day since the last time he walked out with the original galáctico project collapsing around him. A decade on, he faces the prospect of another failure. “Losing to Atlético hurts,” Zidane admitted.
“Football is wonderful,” Atlético’s manager Simeone said. Although, it was not a wonderful game, he was entitled to be satisfied. If Real were poor, Atlético were organised, defensively disciplined and ultimately effective, Griezmann getting his 13th goal of the season to win the game and climb four points ahead of Real, beating them yet again. Afterwards Simone went through his players one by one, describing them all in superlatives. “We’re very happy to be Atlético,” he smiled.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010