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The comeback of the season — how Atlético produced a late show to remember against Osasuna

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The rojiblancos who made Sunday’s season-saving rally happen.

Atletico de Madrid v C.A. Osasuna - La Liga Santander Photo by Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images

By now, you know that Atlético Madrid are moving ever closer to a first league title since 2014.

You know that Atlético could be confirmed as LaLiga’s new champions next Sunday Saturday.

Atlético have reached the precipice after a mind-bending, logic-defying carnival ride of a comeback against Osasuna on Sunday. After such heroics, after everything the rojiblancos went through — and indeed, have been through this season — only a matchday 38 slip-up at nearly-relegated Real Valladolid, allowing Real Madrid the chance to sneak in and win the title, would defy rational thought on a similar level.

(Doesn’t mean it can’t happen.)

Who had Atlético down for missing chance after chance, only to see Renan Lodi score his first goal this season in this game — at this moment? Who had Atleti falling behind in the first place? Or a hydration break less than 15 minutes from time that may just have changed everything?

Here are the five figures who defined Atlético’s come-from-behind win over Osasuna — three points derived from maximum effort, three points to bring the colchoneros a step closer to the objective.

Ante Budimir (CA Osasuna) celebrates after scoring his team... Photo by Manu Reino/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Ante Budimir

The fireworks would not have started without Osasuna’s big center forward, so he has to be included as one of our key cast members.

The well-traveled Budimir had goals in consecutive games and had reached double-digits for the second year running. He is a classic target man, with 11 goals and zero assists in over 1,600 minutes this season. On Halloween, he scored a consolation header in an eventual 3-1 loss at El Sadar — the first rojillo to score against los rojiblancos since 2014.

Entering Sunday evening, he was in-form and the clear threat for an Osasuna team that wanted to live on the counterattack. And at the 74:13 mark, Rúben García spotted him nestling in between Renan Lodi and Felipe Monteiro. García sent a cross spinning toward the back post, and Budimir gained outside position on Lodi before hitting a thunderous goal-bound header.

Jan Oblak made a mighty effort and smacked the ball away with his glove...but not before it crossed the line. Atlético’s superstar goalkeeper has made 100 saves this season, but he couldn’t be faulted when the goal was confirmed at 75:04.

Renan Lodi

Diego Simeone often talks about the competition within his Atlético squad and how it grows with each season. Cholo has said it’s not always about the quantity of minutes a player receives — it’s the quality of those minutes, the context behind them.

Lodi has been left out entirely from 15 of Atlético’s 37 league games this season. One year after emerging as an undisputed starter and Filipe Luis’ heir at left back — or so we thought — Lodi has made 11 starts and as many appearances off the bench. The 23-year-old is a gifted attacker but a suspect defender, and Mario Hermoso’s growth this season facilitated a switch to a friendlier formation for the left-footed Spaniard.

But a potential league champion requires contributions from all over the squad. For example, last season’s title-winning Real Madrid side saw 21 different players record at least one goal. At kickoff Sunday, 12 Atlético players had scored at least once.

Lodi became the 13th at 81:42, timing his run perfectly to latch onto a João Félix scoop pass and rip it into the roof. Sergio Herrera had stopped everything to that point. There was no stopping the Brazilian’s left-footed laser.

Yannick Carrasco

“He left for China a boy, and he returned a man,” Goal journalist and Atlético supporter Rubén Uría tweeted.

For much of this season, Carrasco played in a position he didn’t particularly like. In order for Simeone’s 3-5-2 to work, he needed a left wing back to stretch play the way Kieran Trippier and Marcos Llorente do on the right. Carrasco performed this role well for Belgium, and Simeone wanted him to replicate it at club level.

“It’s not my preferred position, but I’m willing to help out wherever the manager tells me,” Carrasco told Marca in January. “Now that I’m older, I help the team wherever.”

Carrasco’s return in the winter 2020 window caught many observers off-guard — instead of Edinson Cavani, Atlético brought back a “known quantity,” hoping to add punch to a sputtering attack. But as he often does, Simeone found a way to enhance and modify a player ostensibly signed to serve a separate purpose (example — Llorente, initially signed as Rodri’s replacement).

After the early months of 2021 saw him struggle with bumps, bruises, and COVID-19, Carrasco has keyed Atlético’s recent surge of five wins from seven games. He has three goals and five assists during this stretch of scandalous form. The 27-year-old is reaping the rewards from the sacrifices he made earlier this campaign — he’s just about playing on the forward line now, as Simeone has returned to the four-man defense in recent weeks.

The new (old?) advanced positioning was evident in the final throes at the Wanda Metropolitano on Sunday, when Carrasco cut right against defender Juan Cruz to fling a low cross halfway across the box...

Luis Suárez

...and at 87:33, Atlético entered “the Suárez Zone.”

El Pistolero’s revenge tour against his doubters up at Barcelona has seen him score 20 times for Atlético. Half those goals are game-winners. His manager knew he would come good and snap a five-game goalless run — and Suárez never let his head drop amid his own personal suffering in this game and against Real Sociedad midweek.

After all, he swapped blaugrana for rojiblanco to deliver in these moments.

“A forward has to be used to these situations,” Suárez said post-match. “It’s easier for a goalscorer to lower his head when things don’t go right, but I never identified with (that facet of being a striker). I’m happy and proud, if you fight and fight and don’t lower your arms, you can achieve the objective, like today.”

In Andrei Tarkovsky’s film “Stalker,” three characters seek the “Zone,” a mysterious haven that supposedly grants a person’s innermost wishes. Entering Luis Suárez’s Zone, where the neck veins bulge and a “washed” 34-year-old wins a do-or-die match with the inside of his right boot, might just grant Atleti supporters the league title they crave.

Atletico Madrid v Osasuna - La Liga Santander Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

Diego Simeone

Marca called it “the talk that turned LaLiga around.” Spanish TV — well, El Chiringuito — howled about its illegality (it’s perfectly legal). But the man at the heart of a 78th minute cooling break wanted to convey a simple message to his players, behind on the scoreboard and behind in the standings.

Though Atlético have been in first place for over five months, the second half of this season has been anything but smooth sailing. The lead atop LaLiga has been whittled down to the quick, but Sunday’s fightback was the latest indication that this team — despite its regression, its inconsistencies, its flaws — simply won’t die.

Atlético emerged from the transitional 2019/20 season retooled — and imbued with Simeone’s spirit, a mental toughness that has been on display throughout these past few months.

Think back to grind-’em-out games at Eibar, at Real Betis, at Elche. Both games against Alavés. These have turned out to be crucial results — the Betis draw last month kept Atleti top by a single point in a particularly delicate moment.

The colchoneros refuse to relinquish the lead they’ve held since matchday 14. They have most certainly bent, but they have not broken. Their coach lives for these backs-to-the-wall scenarios — even when his team will enter the final weekend leading the pack.

Atletico de Madrid v C.A. Osasuna - La Liga Santander Photo by Jose Manuel Alvarez/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

“(The game at Valladolid means we have to) arrive with freshness, be a fierce team, counterattack...sustain the attack, respond well to losing the ball and (ensure) the fans continue to feel proud of the team we have,” Simeone said after sprinting down the tunnel and back out again.

Next Saturday, Cholo will want to walk down that tunnel with the league trophy won. He’s close now.

Valladolid.