Judgement Day in La Liga this evening
The rise of Athletico Madrid to the pinnacle of La Liga this season is the best thing that could have happened to Spanish football in recent years. Finally, La Liga can shake off accusations of being a two-horse race between Real Madrid and Barcelona. The notable ‘other’ team of the Spanish capital has now broken the monopoly (or rather duopoly) of the big two having led La Liga for the past few weeks.
However, nothing has been decided yet, but it will be this evening when all eyes of the footballing world would be on this ultimate game between Barcelona and Athletico Madrid at the Catalan’s own citadel of Nou Camp. It’s like a final, where the winner takes the Spanish league crown. All the plaudits Athletico and its animated manager, Diego Simeone has been showered with all season would count for nothing if they cannot win this game. The world after all prostrates before great finishers, not beginners, for finishers are the winners. So, if you lose in the end, you actually did not finish the goal you had aimed to achieve when you began.
Reputations are carved or destroyed in games like this. It’s an open secret that arrangements have already been made for Barcelona coach Tata Martino to face the guillotine. Blaugrana old boy, Luis Enrique, who recently bid adieu to his job as manager of Celta Vigo (who a week earlier ended Real Madrid’s title challenge with a 2-0 victory) is the frontrunner to take the reins at his former club.
Nevertheless, the question is, will Barcelona sack Martino if he orchestrates a morale-boosting, season-changing victory over the European team of the season this evening, which would win them the title? I don’t think so. Because if they do so, Barcelona like Real Madrid will be looked upon as another arrogant, impatient club that doesn’t value the worth of success.
Likewise, if Simeone fails to clinch the title, when all he needs is a draw, his soaring reputation too would crash. There’s also this strong possibility that a defeat this evening would sap the morale of his indefatigable squad and they might botch next week’s Champions League final against their great city rivals. Simeone would then join the league of some of those good coaches, who never allowed themselves to become great, because they failed to deliver when it really mattered. Does Hector Cuper ring a bell? Simeone’s fellow Argentine is one of Europe’s great failure stories having taken mediocre Valencia to successive Champions League finals, losing in succession to Real Madrid and Bayern Munich in 2000 and 2001. Prior to that he had lost the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup final to Lazio with Mallorca and the Copa del Rey final to Barcelona. Later, as Inter Milan coach, he infamously threw away the scudetto after losing to Lazio in the final match of the Seria A in the 2003-04 season, which handed over the title to Juventus.
The neutrals, most of whom want Athletico to win the La Liga, sincerely hope such a scenario doesn’t arise and Simeone and Athletico deliver what they have been promising so far.
Continuing with reputations, new La Liga poster boy, Diego Costa will face certain ignominy if he cannot help his team win the title. All talk of him being a hot property and great transfer target will hit rock bottom with a possible loss. Messi, on the other hand has not set the league on fire with his performances this season. By the high standards he sets year in year out, the 28 goals this season was a paltry amount that didn’t do his mighty team any good. Nonetheless, all that could change if the little big man can hit the back of net and win the 23rd league title for the Catalans.
Lovers of the beautiful game around the world want Athletico Madrid to win this evening and become the first team other than Real and Barca to win La Lia since Rafael Benitez-led Valencia won the title in 2004. For, if that happens, a new champion would further embellish La Liga’s reputation as the best league in the world, which has already been enhanced with the first derby final in the history of the UEFA Champions League, thanks to Athletico and Real Madrid’s stellar second leg semi-final victories over Chelsea and Bayern Munich respectively last month, and by Seville’s dramatic victory in the Europa League earlier this week.