While often overshadowed by their ostentatious in-town rivals, Atlético Madrid has done their best to remind everyone that there are indeed two teams in la capital by winning the Europa League in dominating fashion against La Liga foes Athletic Bilbao in Bucharest. Atlético also sits fifth in the league table, only two points behind fourth-place Málaga. After such a solid season and fine finish in Bucharest, I’m left wondering: will they be able to pose a threat to the hegemony of the league’s elite teams next season?
Their last loss was on April 11th, 4-1 to a rampaging and record-setting Real Madrid team that few opponents have been able to contain this season. Otherwise they’ve been putting together a nice string of encouraging performances, beating Málaga and drawing with Sociedad since then. Bilbao, it must be pointed out, are not exactly pushovers either; they beat Manchester United (pretty handily, really) on the way to the Europa League final, and currently sit tenth in the league table. A 3-0 manhandling of a decent and disciplined squad is nothing to sneeze at.
With Barcelona somewhat hobbled by the resignation of coach Pep Guardiola, could we see two Madrid sides (and maybe the Basques) battling it out for the top spot next year? Before the match, the Guardian’s Jacob Steinberg wrote as an introduction: “Sure, it’s actually Wednesday night on Channel Five and it’s not The El Clasico, but we’re all tired of that by now anyway and in any case, this has all the potential to be a mini-clasico.”
I, for one, would love to see someone other than Real Madrid and Barcelona in the top spot next year, if only for a while (and I’m a Real Madrid partisan). And if the Basque flag hanging in my bedroom is any indication, I have a soft spot for the small but recalcitrant separatist region and its wildly entertaining football clubs. (Also, I’ve still not had better food than the pancakes I had in San Sebastian, prepared extemporaneously by an old lady in a small bar that didn’t normally serve breakfast. Just sayin’…)