With a display full of the resilience they have displayed so magnificently all season, Atletico secured their first La Liga title in 18 years after fighting back to claim a dramatic draw at the Camp Nou and deny Barcelona a win that would have made them champions.
In a historic one-off match to decide the destination of the Spanish title, Barcelona got what appeared being the crucial breakthrough against a stubborn Atletico defense with a sensational goal from Alexis Sanchez just past the half-hour mark. Having already lost talismanic striker Diego Costa and influential creator Arda Turan to injury, it appeared that Atletico’s chance to triumph over Spain’s big two might have come and gone with their failure to beat Malaga last week. Instead, Diego Simeone’s men came up with incredible intensity after the half-time interval and got their reward with Diego Godin’s headed equalizer.
From there Atletico’s organization and determination came to the fore. They repelled without any great scares a Barcelona team who continued to startlingly lack the fluency of their dominant recent years. When the final whistle blew, few could argue that the best team in Spain this season would be picking up the trophy. Even the Barcelona fans appeared magnanimously on board with that view when they applauded the new champions, while reserving jeers for their own teams.
The win crowns an incredible rise for Atletico. In just two-and-a-half years Simeone has turned the once bumbling mess of a club into the best in Spain, overcoming Barcelona and Real Madrid sides with far greater financial power and far more star names. That Atletico won without their star, Diego Costa, is perhaps fitting for a side that is all about the unit rather than individuals. It looks likely that Costa will miss next week’s Champions League final against their local rivals, but few will bet against Atletico adding yet another trophy to one of the most remarkable seasons in recent history.
The historic day had gotten off to a worrying start when Costa, who has been struggling with a niggling injury in recent weeks, pulled up when chasing a ball down the left with an apparent hamstring injury. After just 15 minutes, the man with 36 goals to his name this season was left in tears and inconsolable on the bench, doubtless fearing that his Champions League final and World Cup dreams had both been snatched away. When Arda Turan similarly went off soon after, Atletico’s task had been made all the more difficult.
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After a first-half devoid of chances, La Liga’s most dramatic title race in recent memory took an even bigger swing toward Barcelona. In the 33rd minute, Cesc Fabregas chipped a ball into the box, Lionel Messi chested it down and Sanchez needed no second invitation as he took over and smashed a shot inside the near post with ridiculous power from a preposterous angle.
Simeone had a huge task on his hands during the half-time interval, but all the signs were that he gave a speech to remember. Atletico came out forcing Barcelona back and threatening more in the opening five minutes than they did in the entirety of the first 45. David Villa might have had a hat-trick, but was first denied a goal that would almost have been the equal of Sanchez by an upright, before missing his kick and then failing to take the ball in his stride when appearing to be through on goal.
But those missed chances were not to prove costly, and Atletico got their much-needed and much-deserved equalizer. From Gabi’s corner, Barcelona’s defenders appeared to back off almost in fear as Uruguayan center-back Godin rose emphatically 10 yards out and powered a header down and past Jose Manuel Pinto in the hosts’ goal.
Barcelona suffered their own injury blow soon after when Sergio Busquets was forced off to be replaced by Alex Song. It was a change that was never going to do much to aid Barcelona’s passing rhythm. Meanwhile, Xavi remained on the bench until late on. As he has been so often in recent weeks and has been against Atletico Madrid throughout their meetings this season, Messi was a marginal figure. For a brief second there were cheers when the Argentinean put the ball into net from close range, but the strike was rightly ruled out for offside.
Despite the introduction of Neymar, the closest Barcelona came to a goal was a long-range effort helped over comfortably by Thibaut Courtois. Even the late appearance of Pinto in Atletico’s penalty area for a corner could not disturb La Liga’s best defense. As the dying seconds ticked away, Simeone and his coaching staff came off their bench and ready to celebrate their extraordinary achievement. Meanwhile, Simeone’s counterpart and compatriot was soon to be officially announcing what had been known for months: he would be stepping down after a tumultuous season for Barcelona both on and off the pitch.