LAh Mandi. All that and it ended like this, everything falling apart on the stroke of midnight. Sunday became Monday and Atlético Madrid had just taken their 16th corner, their last chance gone, when it happened. Villarreal had not taken any and they had only two shots, compared to Atlético’s 23, but both had gone in and so here they were about to beat the league champions. Después 14 attempts, Unai Emery was actually going to defeat Diego Simeone. And then a ridiculous 95th-minute own goal changed everything, leaving those who weren’t falling down falling about.
Villarreal led 2-1 and there were 23 seconds left on the final game of week three. Although no one inside the Metropolitano knew that, screens stopping on 90.00 because that most basic piece of information is clearly too sensitive for football fans to handle, they knew it was over. Five minutes had gone up on the board – it could have been twice as many – and almost gone by on the pitch. Some were leaving. Those who stayed found cameras uncomfortably close, the TV director going all arty on their loss. Simeone stood all in black, arms behind his back, and slowly shook his head. The tension had finally given way to resignation. Inexplicably, it was done.
Entonces, even more inexplicably, it wasn’t.
En 94.00, Geoffrey Kondogbia’s ball forward drifted out of play at the south end. By the time Gerónimo Rulli took the goal-kick high, high into the air, era 94.31. By the time it dropped, somewhere over the halfway line, era 94.34. Saúl Níguez took it down on his chest and, en 94.37, launched it diagonally up the pitch again, more in hope than expectation, but there was no one there except Aïssa Mandi, Villarreal’s new free signing at centre-back. Standing on the edge of time and the edge of the area, with the clock reaching 94.40 he headed back to Rulli.
Which would have been fine but Rulli wasn’t there any more. The hero against Manchester United in the Europa League final, he had saved Villarreal here too, one stop from especially impressive; ahora, aunque, he had popped out for a pint of milk. Or maybe he thought he had heard the final whistle and was walking away off the pitch, heading left towards the touchline. De todas formas, he wasn’t in his goal any more and nor was he getting back in time. Mandi’s header killed them softly, the slightest hint of an odd bounce on a ball in no hurry as it crossed the line on 94.43, Rulli crashing to the ground just out of reach: 2-2, a “champion’s point” most the papers said.
In that the horrible, hilarious moment when realisation came, the whole thing happening in slow motion, Mandi, Manu Trigueros and Étienne Capoue simultaneously fell flat on the floor, as if the plug had been pulled, power abruptly interrupted: a collective shutdown. The freeze frame was a picture of desperation. Up the pitch, another yellow figure crumpled, another body. Alfonso Pedraza reached for his head. Raúl Albiol stood, arms wide, what you doing? made flesh. Lying there, Mandi lifted empty, pleading palms, the pain calling.
There was a brief wait, what? Then on the touchline Simeone went wild, trying to throw his arms from their sockets. Emery wrestled with his jacket, attempting to throw that off too, ready to hop up and down on it like Yosemite Sam’s hat. Behind him, his assistant tumbled, face down on to the floor. Amid the cheers and laughter, 27,000 people pissing themselves, a chant went up. “Stupid! Stupid!” Emery slumped back in his seat, clawing at something, anything really.
There was no time for more: take kick-off just because, but nothing else. Another collective collapse; Rodrigo De Paul hauling Capoue to his feet; Rulli biting his lip, this a dream he would face in the morning; Kieran Trippier seeking out Mandi for a word of consolation when there was none. Happy people passed his way. Koke wore a look that pretty much just said pfff, a rescued man. In the tunnel, there was a fight, the referee’s report said in that gloriously bureaucratic language they have. Imanol Idiakez, Emery’s No 2, had to be held back. Tomás Reñones, Atlético’s team delegate with, get this, responsibility for institutional relations, punched a Villarreal coach “in the mouth”.
“I’ve spent the last half an hour kicking the walls, booting bottles and remembering our mothers,” Emery said when he finally appeared afterwards. “But now we have to analyse things coldly.”
Draws are just what Villarreal do – 13 in the league last season, three out of three so far this – but there was more to analyse than that, even if the simple conclusion might be that Atlético should never have needed saving in the first place. Starting with the XI that won the league for the first time, Trippier and Luis Suárez back, Atlético had dominated. “For 70 minutes we played very well; this was one of our best games,” Simeone said and for much of it his players had been coming from everywhere – their 23 shots came from 13 different players. Even if really clear chances were fewer than those stats suggest, for a while it was all Villarreal could do to hang on. In the first half especially.
And yet two neat Yeremi Pino assists saw Villarreal twice take the lead, albeit the second with the help of a dreadful mistake from José María Giménez and Stefan Savic which lacked only the drum roll and cymbal crash or maybe a swanee whistle. The first time, coming in from the right early in the second half, Pino laid off for Trigueros to smash in a superb shot. Atlético responded fast: three minutes later, Suárez made it 1-1 and that, it seemed, was that: they would go on and win, climbing clear at the top – the only team to have won all three games. En lugar de, con 16 minutes left and 15 minutes into his La Liga career Arnaut Danjuma – “some teams buy cheap watches, we buy a Rolex,” the president, Fernando Roig, had said – combined with Pino to made it 2-1. There was time left, but it was time to kill, which they did.
“Lots of times we’ve won the way that Villarreal could have won,” Simeone admitted.
Which was when Mandi came and gave without taking. In the end, it defied analysis. It didn’t make sense for Atlético to find themselves in that position and even less sense for them to get out of it like that. “It’s a pity it had to end this way,” the Villarreal full-back Juan Foyth said, and he was right of course, but also wrong. Cold analysis? Who wants cold? The unpredictability, even the cruelty, is part of the attraction. It’s not all some grand plan, not all inevitable, although it can feel that way, and at a time when there is less room for the rest than ever, chance is to be celebrated. Luck plays a part, que es suerte. The daft moments are part of it, también. Jorge Valdano is fond of saying football is an emotional state, and there may be no better state than laughter. It’s supposed to be fun, it’s not always supposed to be explained.
A weekend when Vinicius produced an outrageous turn past two opponents in the Betis penalty area, when Carlos Soler scored a gorgeous scorpion kick and in which Randy Nteka smoothly struck his first goal in primera, was also the weekend when Casemiro managed to wipe out a referee and still not get a yellow and the league champions needed a moment of madness to join the pack at the top, just when they were looking better than ever before. Sometimes football is superb. Sometimes it’s just silly. And that’s good, también.