When it finally finished, late and not the way it was supposed to, Diego Simeone stood there meekly tapping at his forearm, his gaze lost, almost visibly deflating on the touchline.
The man in black gone grey, he made some half-hearted request for a handball or something, anything really, just not this, not again. And then he stopped. “There are two places to go to in life: you can be a victim or you can keep going, keep working. I keep working,” he had said three days before, but sometimes you wonder – increasingly so – and this was one of those times. It had happened again and, as midfielder Rodrigo De Paul said, “it hurts”.
The hope made it worse. Asked to make sense of it all on Saturday afternoon, Simeone’s first word wasn’t really a word at all. “Pfff,” he said. “It’s hard to cover everything that happened in two minutes. After the blow from the other day, we got another one.” On Wednesday night, Atlético Madrid had been knocked out of the Champions League after missing a 99th-minute penalty, the very last play of the game. Now, three days on, a 99th-minute goal, the final touch, had them beaten again, a 3-2 defeat at second-bottom Cádiz leaving them nine points off the top, any title challenge over already.
And that’s just the end of it. Wednesday had been absurd, even for them, the Pupas or Jinxed One to whom the competition has been almost comically cruel, the club that lost three European Cups in a total of under a minute for goodness’ sake.
Needing a victory to keep their hopes of going through alive, with Jan Oblak desperately diving at the ball in the opposition’s area, the final whistle had gone on a 2-2 draw against Bayer Leverkusen and the players were heading off the pitch and out of the competition when they were called back and given a penalty. Simeone had been halfway to the tunnel but the VAR had seen a handball almost no one had, Atlético gifted one last shot to save themselves.
They couldn’t, not even with three of them. On 98.46, and with João Félix on his haunches over on the byline watching as if this was a shootout, Yannick Carrasco’s penalty was saved. The ball came back to Saúl Ñíguez, who jumped up and, with the keeper on the floor, headed it against the bar. It dropped to Reinildo, five yards out, and his shot was stopped virtually on the line – by Carrasco, the ball somehow hitting his teammate’s heel and looping up and over the bar. Asked if it was his worst experience in Europe, apart from the finals, Simeone gave a one word answer: “Yes.”
“Atlético die twice,” wrote Patricia Cazón in AS. Three days later, she was leading on: “Atlético die another day.” And it was twice again. Twenty-seven seconds of football later, Atlético had already conceded. A simple enough ball up the wing led to Théo Bongonda giving Cádiz the lead in the first minute on Saturday lunchtime; 80 minutes later, Rubén Sobrino started a superb move and Álex Fernández provided a brilliant finish to put Cádiz 2-0 up.
“The redhead kills the game,” declared the commentator, while the TV director was busy doing a montage of Atlético players’ broken faces. Instead, the game came to life, one of those matches where every spell of possession became a chance. Suddenly, Félix was everywhere, the player he’s supposed to be, carrying the ball from one end to the other; the sub not given a start for eight matches, the symbol of a divide at the heart of the club, he was going to save them.
On 82.32 Félix headed over from five yards. On 84.28, he hit a superb overhead kick that deflected in to make it 2-1. On 85.39, 17 seconds after Álex could have scored Cádiz’s third at the other end, he played Matheus Cunha clean through, his shot fading past the far post. And on 88.03 he thumped a shot past Conan Ledesma to equalise. “Eighty-four really good minutes and, bloody hell, in four minutes the game escaped us: we started to see ghosts,” Cádiz coach Sergio said later. Added time was set to be very long for his team.
Just long enough, as it turned out. Saúl sliced a great chance on 90.39, Simeone slipping to his knees on the sideline. Félix let one run for the 19-year-old debutant Pablo Barrios to shoot on 94.38. On 95.44, he might have got a hat-trick, heading just past the post. There was only one team going to win this, until the other one did. A free kick for Atlético on 97.30 was a last chance, just not the way anyone expected. Launched forward and headed away by Fali, Cádiz continued up the pitch, the congestion in the middle cleared with a ball to the right. From there, the cross was perfect. The clock said 98.06 when it reached its final destination.
Jumping, almost tucking into a pike, Sobrino somehow forced the ball into the net. “Even I don’t know what with,” he admitted. Groin, thigh, stomach or hip, just not hand. There was a pause for the VAR – there’s always a pause for the VAR, football’s new overlord – but the goal stood, despite Simeone’s protests, which weren’t really protests at all, just the energy escaping him. Sergio ran on, going wild. “This was the game,” he said. “Liberation,” he called it: “We can go anywhere like this.” Simeone just stood. His team are going nowhere like that. From 00.27 to 98.06, no one had ever conceded goals so far apart before.
“It’s been a hard week,” Saúl said. “You’re on the ropes, then you see a little bit of hope. You go for the 2-3 and suddenly it’s 3-2.” Marca declared: “Another diabolical ending.” AS called it: “The cruellest week.”
And yet it goes beyond the last four days, even if they bring something bigger a little closer to the surface. Questions of identity are raised again – along with Barcelona, there may be no club where the discourse focuses quite so much on how they play – along with questions of continuity, of whether this is still Simeone’s place or even his team.
In the last couple of weeks, there have been glimpses of that recurring theme: the return of the old Atlético, some self rediscovery. Simeone expressed that idea, at least, and until Saturday their away results showed five wins and a draw against Athletic, Betis, Getafe, Real Sociedad, Sevilla and Valencia. Antoine Griezmann was, the coach said, “looking like the player who left.” The shift to 4-4-2 seemed to be good for them. And the return, at last, of Stefan Savic and Josema Giménez certainly was. When they beat Betis, Manuel Pellegrini complained that the team that tried to win had lost and the team that tried not to lose had won. To which Simeone would surely reply: good.
But it isn’t always good. And there is a vulnerability still, Simeone talking about a mental process: “It’s not football,” he said. He has talked too of fortune, the penalty in midweek “a synthesis of our season in Europe”. Contundencia is the word used most often: roughly, it’s decisiveness and it used to be what defined them, but not any more. In Europe they needed 30 shots on goal to score four. As soon as Savic, against Leverkusen, and Giménez, against Cádiz, had to sit out, Atlético conceded five goals in two matches, as many as in the previous seven.
A debate recurs, doubts remain over who they are and who they should be; the doubt too that everyone sees it the same way, and what that means for Simeone. A second successive Champions League elimination at the group stage – and its financial impact – seems like a watershed. Even among fans, support doesn’t feel as unanimous as it did for a figure who was their everything. Some insiders suggest a cycle could be closing, others that with these players things should be different. Félix’s absence is more significant than his performances. At a club with a capacity for control, it is not so much the contents of those reports of internal criticism that is telling; it is the existence of them. Simeone knows that.
There was something very pointed about Simeone’s line recently when he said: “The other day I was asked if I imagined myself in some other place. I can’t because that would mean I am already going, and I am not going, I am.” In midweek, he insisted: “I am a ‘hard-head’, stubborn, and I’m going to keep working.” He also quoted Paulo Coelho: “A great writer said: ‘It doesn’t matter what people think of me’, and I think the same. I know what I want, I know what I am looking for, and I will carry on the same.” But then defeat came again, cruelly.
“There will be just criticism and some unjust criticism. We need broad shoulders and tranquility,” Simeone said. “It seems like everything’s going to end tomorrow, but there’s a lot of league left.”