By: JOSEPH WILSON
Atletico Madrid’s march to the Spanish league title hit a bump when it lost 2-0 at Levante on Sunday, meaning it must win its remaining two games to clinch the title for the first time since 1996.
Levante pressed early and was rewarded when Papakouly Diop’s corner kick hit Atletico left back Filipe Luis in the chest. The ball bounced out of reach of scrambling goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois before settling into the net in the seventh minute.
Atletico improved with substitutes Arda Turan and Adrian Lopez after halftime but conceded again when striker David Barral beat Courtois in the 69th. Atletico’s first loss in 10 rounds left it three points ahead of Barcelona, which hosts Atletico on the season’s last day.
Real Madrid trails Atletico by six points but has two more games to play. Madrid hosts Valencia later on Sunday and travels to Valladolid on Wednesday. Atletico holds the head-to-head goal advantage over Madrid, giving Diego Simeone’s team the tiebreaker if the two sides — set to meet in the Champions League final on May 24 — also finish level on points in La Liga.
But this stumble throws open the race once again for all three sides, despite Barcelona’s coach and players saying their title defense had been scuttled by their 2-2 draw with Getafe on Saturday. The already exciting season finale has taken another twist that gives all three challengers options to lift the trophy.
Atletico’s path to its first domestic league crown in 18 years now lies through wins at home over Malaga and then at Camp Nou. There is no room for error. Another slip would open the door to crosstown rival Madrid or defending champion Barcelona.
The large contingent of fans who traveled with Atletico from the Spanish capital were left disappointed, but they still applauded their squad after the final whistle at Ciutat de Valencia Stadium.
Four days after its commanding 3-1 victory at Chelsea to reach the final of the Champions League, Atletico was brought down by the modest Levante side that has outperformed expectations thanks to coach Joaquin Caparros’ defensive focus. Goalkeeping Keylor Navas again played a key role as Levante was left in the middle of the table.
“We didn’t want to mess up a title for anyone, I hope they (Atletico) win it,’’ Barral said. “We want to finish the league in the best fashion we can. Playing teams like Atletico or Barcelona is always motivating, we wanted to win it for ourselves.’’
Diop racially abused
Levante’s Senegal midfielder Papakouly Diop has complained of racist abuse from a section of the Atletico Madrid supporters during Sunday’s La Liga game. Diop was by the corner flag in front of several thousand travelling Atletico fans at the end of Levante’s 2-0 win in Valencia and said he had been targeted with monkey chants.
Television footage clearly showed a number of supporters making monkey gestures and Diop responded by dancing in front of them, prompting a mass brawl involving players from both teams.
“I was going to take a corner and some of the Atletico fans started making monkey chants. To defuse the situation I started dancing but I didn’t insult anyone,” he added. “I have nothing against the Atletico fans because it was only a section who chanted.”
The abuse of Diop, which was not mentioned in the referee’s match report, came only days after Barcelona defender Dani Alves was the target of a racist taunt at Villarreal when a fan threw a banana on to the pitch next to him.
Images of Alves, a Brazil international, picking up the banana and taking a bite were beamed around the world and he was widely backed by fellow players and other public figures.
Elsewhere, Ramon Azeez’s last-gasp goal gave 10-man Almeria a 3-2 win at home over relegated Real Betis to help pull his team out of the drop zone.