In the middle of it all, someone fetched David Alaba a chair. It was late, it had been a long week, his legs were weary and everyone were making a lot of noise, but this seat was not for sitting. This was for celebrating, his thing now, and so it took it and lifted it above his head† Back by popular demand, he emulated what he had done after that absurd comeback against Paris Saint Germain, a cheer went round the dressing room and his team-mates started singing: “That’s the way Madrid win!”
They had only gone and done it again, and this time it had taken the title. “It’s just three points, that’s the reality,” Nacho Fernández said standing pitchside when it was all finished bar the shouting, and there was a lot of that, but the reality was that the league was theirs, clinched their way. Four days after their implausible revival against Chelsea, Real Madrid came back from 2-0 to beat Sevilla 3-2 in a brilliant match at the Sánchez Pizjuán, the only remaining unbeaten home record over and the race as good as over with it.
A title winner in Italy, England, Germany and France, Carlo Ancelotti should now add Spain, a fifth different championship arriving via a second opportunity he never expected, a chance phone call about something completely different bringing him back to the Bernabéu. It might even arrive soon: Madrid don’t play next weekend – Saturday is the Copa del Rey final between Valencia and Betis – but by Sunday night they could be champions, if Barcelona slip up this week. Fifteen points clear with six games left, what little hope anyone else had slipped away late on Sunday night. very late Sunday night.
It was Easter Sunday in the place where they take the passion of Christ more seriously than anywhere else, the orange blossom again turning Seville into the best-smelling city on earth, and a huge banner had covered one end at the Pizjuán. “They celebrated our death; they will fear our resurrection,” it read. They meant Sevilla of course – and there are two Jesuses in their team, etc and so on – but it was made for Madrid, always somehow standing there when the rock is rolled back.
Ivan Rakitic had scored the opening goal, his free kick going through the wall where Éder Militão had been. Five minutes later, Érik Lamela made it 2-0, the place going wild. They weren’t even half an hour in and they were flying. Beaten just once since the last time they faced Madrid, way back in November and not at all at home, Sevilla were in control, playing the ball from deep, starting each move pretty much on their own by-line. At one point they worked their way out from the corner, got forced back into it, and so just worked their way out again, accompanied by oles from the stand.
“We had the game in a good place,” Rakitic said. This was going to be some story; instead, it was the story of their season. Close, but not. There, but out of reach, a feeling that they just couldn’t take that step, at some level they still didn’t really believe it however well it was going. “There was a fear of winning,” Julen Lopetegui admitted. There was also that other recurring theme, players breaking down all over the field. Antony Martial was taken out by Eduardo Camavinga, and forced off where the Madrid midfielder might have been sent off, a moment they felt changed everything. Marcos Acuña went too. Then Lamela.
“Had we kept them all on, I’m sure we would have won,” said Monchi, the sporting director. “It’s such a pity.” He too saw their whole season in this one game, opportunity lost. A “photo” he called it.
In the end, it wasn’t even that good. A proper portrait would have had them drawing. Sevilla didn’t lose in eleven league games after the turn of the year, the transfer window – signing Tecatito Corona and Martial, resisting Newcastle’s approach for Diego Carlos – reflecting a feeling that they were standing before a unique opportunity. The problem was they didn’t win much either; seven of those ended in a draw, the challenge disintegrating one point at a time Even second place slipped. Now fourth could as well. They were knocked out of the cup by Betis and the Europa League by West Ham, missing out on the chance of winning their trophy in their stage.
And now that stadium saw its first defeat of the league season, ending in whistles and recrimination. Lamela was asked how the two halves could be so different. “We’re asking ourselves exactly that,” he said, but in truth the shift had come earlier, late in the first half. “You can’t give them even a centimetre,” the Sevilla captain Rakitic said . “We invited them to come back.” Even at 2-0 – a scoreline Sevilla had not let slip in almost a decade at home – there was feeling that this was coming. Not just because this is Seville but because that is Madrid “Everyone was waiting for us to slip but this team doesn’t slip, because it has courage, heart and character,” Ancelotti said. Some seriously good players too, and a manager who listens to them, reaches them, and trusts in them.
“This team is capable of doing special things,” Ancelotti added and for all the talk of epic, mentality, or fortune, there is also a physical capacity, all the more unexpected for how rarely they rotate. Above all there is football. Madrid left it late, but were superb in the second half in Seville, the three goals far from their only chances and as much about talent as well as temperament. Each time cutting right through to the by-line, Vinicius in particular provided lovely touches to open up his opponents. The changes worked too, as they often do with Ancelotti, and the contrast to Sevilla was stark. Rodrygo, on at half time, quickly got the first and Nacho scored the second on 82.
That might have already been Madrid’s third, Thibaut Courtois sitting on the advertising boards at one end amiably chatting to Sevilla’s fans about a whether an earlier “goal” would be given, only for the VAR to decide that Vinicius had handled. Instead, with Julen Lopetegui frantically waving on the touchline, the third had to wait until Benzema finished off another neat move in the ninety-second minute. He then dashed towards the men on the bench as they ran towards him. Ancelotti clenched his fists and shouted. Alaba held his head in his hands† And players and staff piled in. To their right, Lopetegui looked broken.
They knew what it meant. “We’re a little closer,” Nacho said but it was a lot. This game, the covers of both Madrid papers had agreed on Sunday morning, was “half a league”, championship point or break point, as Diario AS put it. Barcelona and Sevilla had been handed hope and then it had taken away again. Rafa Mir had missed a glorious chance to end it at 2-1 only to head over but with eight minutes left Madrid were still losing. Had it stayed that way, they would have gone to Pamplona – not somewhere they enjoy – knowing that another defeat could have seen them reach the end of next weekend just three points ahead.
Instead, they could soon be champions. Madrid need just ten points in six games to be sure, whatever the rest do now, responding when it mattered once more. “Statement,” Toni Kroos called it, the entire team posing for a picture together – well, almost the entire team. Maybe Gareth Bale was taking it. One last major hurdle was overcome the way that they like it, the title as good as theirs even if they still have to wait for the trophy, Alaba’s chair playing the part for just a little longer.