MADRID (AP) — Luis Suárez had come close to scoring all day long.
He had hit the post, missed from close range and been stopped by the goalkeeper a couple of times.
As time passed and the misses compounded, Atlético Madrid was seeing its title hopes slip away. It was a few minutes from relinquishing a Spanish league lead it had kept for most of the season. It was a few moments from moving further away from its first league title since 2014.
Atlético needed a goal more than ever. It needed its striker like never before.
And Suárez came through when it mattered the most.
With Atlético being held late and needing the victory to get back in control in the title race, it was Suárez’s winner on Sunday that left the team three points away from being able of lifting the trophy in next weekend’s final round.
Suárez stood patiently in the middle of the area, waiting for the pass from Yannick Carrasco to come his way. He then calmly drove a low shot into the net, ending a scoring drought of nearly two months and giving Atlético a crucial 2-1 win over Osasuna.
The striker took off his jersey and slid by the corner flag to celebrate. A few seconds later he was underneath a pile of his Atlético teammates. The cheers from the fans outside the Wanda Metropolitano Stadium could be heard loudly.
“Who better than Suárez to decide a game that seemed to be slipping away from us?” said Atlético coach Diego Simeone, who before the game had predicted this was the striker’s time to shine, saying the team was entering the “Suárez Zone.”
Simone was among those celebrating when Atlético signed the Uruguay striker in the beginning of the season after he was surprisingly let go by Barcelona against his wishes.
Suárez had a solid season with Atlético despite losing time after being infected with COVID-19. At one stretch, he scored 11 goals in nine matches to help Atlético build its lead.
“Luis is an extraordinary player. He arrived with rebellion and a desire to show his worth,” Simeone said. “It’s true that he hadn’t been scoring, but he was always there for us.”
Suárez’s goal on Sunday was his 20th in the league for Atlético. But he hadn’t scored in five matches, since March 21, coinciding with the team’s slump that had allowed Barcelona and Real Madrid to move closer in the title race.
“There are times when it may be easier for a striker to lower his head, to have a letdown,” said the 34-year-old Suárez, who won three league titles with Barcelona. “But I’ve never been like that. I’m proud to always keep fighting.”
Atlético’s last game will be at relegation-threatened Valladolid on Saturday. Atlético can also clinch the title if defending champion Madrid fails to win its home match against Villarreal. Madrid won 1-0 at Athletic Bilbao on Sunday to stay two points behind. It has the better head-to-head tiebreaker against Atlético.
“We depend only on ourselves,” Suárez said. “It will be the most important match of the season.”
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