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Months-long problem dooms Atlético in Bilbao

And it may just have cost the colchoneros their league title.

Athletic Club v Atletico de Madrid - La Liga Santander Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images

Atlético Madrid couldn’t extend its winning streak to three games on Sunday, and what actually happened in the Basque Country could prove lethal to the league leaders.

Iñigo Martínez powered home Ibai Gómez’s corner kick in the 86th minute to hand Athletic — runners-up in two Copa del Rey finals this month and winless in seven overall — a shock 2-1 victory at San Mamés. Stefan Savić had equalized from a corner himself not 10 minutes earlier, and a draw would have seen Atlético continue in first place for at least another week.

It also would have meant four wins from Atleti’s remaining games — and one point at Barcelona in two weeks’ time — would be enough to clinch the team’s first league title in seven years.

Athletic Club v Atletico de Madrid - La Liga Santander Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images

Now, Barcelona can move into first with a win against Granada on Thursday, and a draw versus Atlético on May 8 — along with four wins from its other four games — will see Barça win the trophy after being 10 points behind Atleti in February.

Diego Simeone blamed Sunday’s loss on a poor first half and regretted his decision to roll out virtually the same 11 that had soundly defeated Eibar and Huesca earlier in the week. Sure, fine. Yet there’s another problem, one far deeper, which bit the team once more in Bilbao:

Atlético allowed another late goal.

No other side in LaLiga’s top seven has conceded more goals in the final 15 minutes than Atlético, with seven.

To be fair, some didn’t matter much to the final result. For example, Jorge Molina scored late for Granada in Atlético’s eventual 6-1 win, Ante Budimir knocked in an 80th minute header for Osasuna before Atleti secured a 3-1 victory, and Jorge De Frutos’s 95th minute breakaway goal doubled Levante’s lead in a 2-0 win in Madrid a couple months ago.

But this remains a major issue that Simeone has not fixed despite months — literally a season’s worth — of warning signs centered on his team’s alarming physical drop toward the end of games.

Atlético’s defense let in the three goals below during situations where the team was on track to win or draw:

Feb. 8: Facundo Ferreyra (89th minute)

(Ferreyra has not scored since.)

March 7: Karim Benzema (88th minute)

April 25: Iñigo Martínez (86th minute)

(Prior to this header, Iñigo had not scored in 2020/21.)

Instead of a possible seven points from these three games, Atlético picked up two. This five-point swing has turned the title race completely on its head.

That is the difference between winning a league and losing it.

It’s not over yet for Atleti, and at least the math is pretty simple now — five wins, or else. Relegation strugglers Elche are up next before the all-important trip to Catalonia, and los rojiblancos continue to depend on themselves — five straight victories and the title is theirs, irrespective of results elsewhere.

However, Simeone’s men can’t bank on fortune favoring them if they can’t execute fundamentals themselves — like seeing out a tight result.

Championship teams resist in adverse circumstances. Atlético have faced COVID cases, multiple injuries, and plain bad luck over the past couple months — conditions beyond the players’ and Simeone’s control.

But marking Iñigo Martínez on a set piece is something that is firmly within a team’s control, and something this one simply didn’t do as the clock ticked down Sunday night. It might prove to hurt Cholo and co. more than they know.

State of the Race

  • Sevilla (22-4-7, 70 points) keep on rolling. Not even an egregious timekeeping error can knock this train off track — Julen Lopetegui has steered his side to five straight wins and seven victories from eight in LaLiga.

Hot take here, but everything points to the May 9 showdown at Real Madrid as being decisive. Sevilla haven’t beaten Madrid away since 2008 and last earned a draw there in 1993.

Sevilla FC v Granada CF - La Liga Santander Photo by Fran Santiago/Getty Images
  • Real Madrid (21-8-4, 71 points) could have been dealt a fatal blow after drawing with Real Betis on Saturday night, but Atlético’s loss means Zinedine Zidane’s men — still alive in the Champions League — remain in the hunt to successfully defend their crown.

Los blancos will need some fortune beyond their own results, but they host Osasuna next Saturday, a game sandwiched between their Champions League semifinal against Chelsea.

  • Barcelona (22-5-5, 71 points) defeated Villarreal with two Antoine Griezmann (/eyeroll/) goals on Sunday afternoon. Barça have won 18 of the past 22 in LaLiga after a 4-2-4 start and can at last take over top spot with a home win over Granada on Thursday.

Don’t expect any help from the visitors — Granada have made 24 all-time visits to Camp Nou and have lost every one.