Atletico Madrid draw at Camp Nou to win Primera Liga title ahead of Barcelona
BARCELONA // Atletico Madrid are the champions of Spain.
Such words would have been considered utterly implausible at the start of the season in a league mocked for the overwhelming dominance of the big two. Every other team was considered rank outsiders and it was normal for players from huge Spanish clubs such as Atletico, Valencia and Sevilla to openly talk of finishing third, not winning the league.
Diego Simeone never made such comments. Atletico’s Argentine manager, who had been a star as a player the last time the club won the league title in 1996, knew that the players at his disposal were technically inferior.
He knew, too, that he was operating on a wage budget a quarter the size of the big two. Yet if he did not exactly thrive in adversity, he used whatever skills he had at his disposal to change the way the world looked at Spanish football.
Simeone is the mastermind behind Atletico’s greatest triumph. His team wobbled as they came close to the finish line – losing against Levante with three games left and drawing at home by Malaga last week – but so did Real Madrid and Barcelona, who failed to win their last two matches.
Last night, Barca made it three straight games without a win when they were held to a 1-1 draw at home in the biggest game of the season, against Atletico. As winners, Barca would have become champions, but a draw was good enough for Simeone’s side, who held a three-point advantage.
History repeated itself. This was only the third time since Spain’s Primera League began in 1929 when two teams met head-to-head on the final day of the season, with both being able to take Spain’s greatest prize.
In 1946, Sevilla travelled to Camp Nou to face Barcelona. They came from behind to draw 1-1 and snatch the title.
Five years later, Atletico travelled to Sevilla. The home team took the lead, but Atletico equalised and won the league.
There was a third occasion, in 1971, when Barcelona played Atletico on the final day. Had either team won, they would claim the league. The match was again drawn, though rivals Valencia won their game to be crowned champions.
When star players Diego Costa and Arda Turan limped off inside the first 23 minutes, the chances of Atletico avoiding defeat to a team who had won 16 of their 18 league games this season lengthened.
The climb got steeper when Alexis Sanchez gave the Catalans the lead with a wicked strike into the roof of the net after 33 minutes.
It was a wonder goal and the huge crowd of 98,000 roared in support and expectation of a 23rd league title. A mere 477 in the stadium were supporting Atletico in the visitors section– at least officially, for there were fans in red and white all around Camp Nou.
Atletico had shown their resolve time and again this season. They avoided defeat in five previous meetings with Barca, knocking them out of the Uefa Champions League, too, and were about to make it six matches without a defeat. Whatever Simeone said at half time, it worked. They came out the better side, continuing to snuff out Lionel Messi and, somehow, finding the energy to attack.
Diego Godin’s 49th-minute equaliser – a free header for the Uruguayan centre-back from a corner – was deserved.
Atletico held out and, when the final whistle came, Simeone and many of his players fell to the ground in delirium. They were warmly applauded by the home fans – who then turned their invective on their own team, who they consider failures.
There will be big changes demanded at Barca this summer.
Meanwhile, Atletico fans will be hoping there are not too many changes at the Calderon, the home of the unforeseen champions.
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Published: May 17, 2014 04:00 AM