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Eterno Capitán: Gabi’s best moments in an Atlético shirt

A look back at five highlights from Gabi’s second stint in the capital.

Atletico Madrid v Arsenal FC - UEFA Europa League Semi Final Second Leg

In sports, teams that achieve a coherent and singular vision among management, coaching staff and superstar often win silverware. Stepenh Curry, Steve Kerr and the onerous Joe Lacob — he of the infamous “light years ahead” trope — found and created that cohesion with the high-flying Warriors, a team that has won three of the past four NBA championships. Politics aside, Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft made it work for years with the “Do Your Job” Patriots, although Seth Wickersham appeared to reveal some cracks in the façade last year. Tim Duncan, Gregg Popovich and RC Buford shared a vision that made the San Antonio Spurs the NBA’s model franchise for two decades.

At first glance, Gabi didn’t seem like Atlético Madrid’s superstar. Since he returned from Zaragoza in 2011, he never hit more than three goals in a season across all competitions. If you watched him play, he seemed like the evolution — the final form, even — of the tryhard, the one who slaps the floor on defense at the Y or dives into crunching tackles in the park. To someone who never watches football, his game seemed particularly attainable when compared with Antoine Griezmann’s flicks and vision, Jan Oblak’s athleticism and Saúl’s technique.

However, just as most would consider Curry the emblem of the Silicon Valley Warriors, Gabi was the undeniable talisman of this decade’s “Nunca Dejes de Creer” Atlético sides. Though you can quibble with some of the front office’s decisions, Atleti have that Warriors, Patriots and Spurs level of unified vision. That’s a big reason why they’ve won the titles they’ve won. That vision is particularly strong between manager and captain, as Diego Simeone once wrote that Gabi is a man whom he could understand with just a look.

I would’ve bet on Gabi as someone who’d retire wearing red and white. But this past month, Xavi’s Al Sadd side came calling with an offer — drenched in oil money — that our captain, who turned 35 this past week, couldn’t have gotten anywhere else. No one here at ItC will reproach Gabi for anything. If anyone on the squad deserved a fat paycheck and a ride into the sunset in China or the Middle East, it’s Yannick Carrasco our captain.

In the spirit of smiling because it happened instead of crying because it’s over, here’s a list of Gabi’s best moments with his childhood club.

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5) Tunnel sendoff against Barcelona (2015)

Gabi was nothing if not combative, and he paid the price in the 2015 Copa del Rey quarters against Barça with his team down 2-1. He stood up for his teammates and complained to referee Gil Manzano about some of his decisions in the tunnel as half time. Manzano wasn’t having it and showed the captain a straight red. You can probably find “getting sent off in the tunnel” somewhere in an appendix of the Cholismo Bible.

Gabi ultimately got the last laugh, as what allegedly sent Manzano over the edge were Gabi’s issues with Neymar’s behavior. Given how this year’s World Cup played out, Gabi looks more in-the-right than ever.

4) Derbi golazo at the Calderón (2014)

Throughout the 2013/14 Liga-winning campaign, it often seemed as if Atlético could do no wrong. This moment captured that feeling in a nutshell, bottling that magic into a 10-second package.

After Atleti earned a set piece, which — as we’ll discuss later in this article — was right in that side’s wheelhouse, Koke rolled the ball to his captain. Luka Modrić was slow to close down, and el Capitán launched a speculative rocket from well outside the area. He hit it sweetly, past a (very) slow-to-react Diego López. While Real Madrid would peg Atleti back and the match ended in a 2-2 draw, the moment, the degree of difficulty and the opposition combined to make this the goal of Gabi’s career.

3) Europa League final clincher (2018)

Though this moment took place only months ago, it has already aged particularly well. Gabi’s goal in this match means so much more now than it did in the moment, as we now know that it signified the captain’s farewell as an Atlético Madrid player.

The Europa League final marked Gabi’s 49th appearance in all competitions during 2017/18 campaign. He hadn’t scored in the first 48. When his low, driven shot singed the side netting in the 89th minute, the captain wheeled away in celebration, grinning from ear-to-ear, machine gun gesture at the ready. Griezmann had long since decided the match — but from the way the team mobbed their captain, it was clear how much the goal meant to them and how much the man meant to the club.

Olympique de Marseille v Club Atletico de Madrid - UEFA Europa League Final Photo by Maja Hitij/Getty Images

2) Corner delivery to win LaLiga (2014)

The set piece is officially back in vogue thanks to this World Cup. For international squads who spend precious little time together on the training ground, working on free kick and corner routines can often raise a team’s ceiling more than perfecting a counterpress. Media darling Gareth Southgate — that waistcoated style icon — has earned particular acclaim for culling set piece inspiration from the NBA. Anyone who’s played middle school basketball will recognize familiar patterns in England’s vertical stack setups on corners. With analytics forcing their way into mainstream conversations about the NBA, the NFL and MLB, many journalists now acknowledge the set piece as football’s under-exploited inefficiency.

But if you support Atlético, that’s nothing new. You’ve known that since 2014. During that historic season, Koke delivered set piece after set piece onto the incomparable foreheads of Diego Godín and Raúl García, seemingly using an internal GPS to place the ball exactly where he wanted it. Though his delivery has inexplicably tailed off since, Koke devastated so many defenses that season that the Spanish media began to refer to Atleti’s corner kicks as “penalty corners.”

Nevertheless, on matchday 38, with Atleti trailing by a goal to nil and needing a draw to win the league, Koke ceded spot kick duties to his captain. Gabi hit a perfect, driven ball straight to the penalty spot, Godín outjumped everyone and the rest is legend.

1) Champions League final (2016)

Gabi will go down in Atlético lore as arguably the most decorated captain in the club’s history, having won a Copa Del Rey, a Supercopa de España, a UEFA Super Cup, two Europa League titles and — of course — LaLiga. However, he wouldn’t be a true Atleti legend unless his greatest, most meaningful moment with the club took place during a loss.

A brief digression: I have a weird obsession with player ratings. After every Atleti match, I rarely bother with the match recaps. Instead, I make straight for Into the Calderón’s ratings (usually from Jeremy or Rob), then compare them to whatever Joe Walker or Dermot Corrigan wrote at ESPNFC. If it’s a particularly big match, I can usually scrounge something up at The Guardian as well.

All that to say, I can’t even count how many times I’ve read “covered every blade of grass on the pitch” next to Gabi’s name after a match in a player ratings article. Watching Gabi play football makes you feel something in your lungs. And during the 2016 Champions League final — in Milan, at San Siro, against the eternal rival — Gabi covered every blade of grass on the pitch. He won the ball back in the middle of the park. He dribbled past countless white jerseys. And he played the ball over the top that unlocked the Madrid defense at last for Carrasco’s (RIP) goal.

After the teams remained deadlocked after 120 minutes, Gabi took Atleti’s second penalty in the shootout. The walk from the halfway line to the penalty spot must be the longest in football, but Gabi made it confidently. As the whistle blew, he charged up to the ball — Harry Kane style, no Neymar-esque dallying — and blasted an unstoppable penalty into the top corner, leaving Keylor Navas red-faced.

Never a doubt.

We all know how the shootout ended. But if there’s one colchonero who could hold his head high after that defeat, it was our capitán.