“Game by game”, was the phrase repeated over and over throughout the season by Diego Simeone. It summed up his philosophy, if you like, of how to tackle and dare even win a League that he was said was “impossible to win”. There are 38 games, but, Simeone only focused on them one by one, as if they were all finals. Come the last matchday on Saturday, and it really was a ‘final’. The winner was to take all. A draw and the title would go to Atletico Madrid.
And that is just what happened. It did all-square and, hence, Atleti became champions for the first time since 1996. After so many years of not even getting close and even being relegated to the Segunda Division, Los Rojiblancos are champions again. It is an incredible achievement and not just because of Atletico’s long wait, but, also because they are the first team other than Real Madrid or Barcelona to win the Spanish League in ten years. La Liga’s excessively powerful duopoly broken.
What makes this achievement so remarkable is that there was no sign of this ever happening when the season kicked off. No side has been able to get even close let alone match Barcelona or Real Madrid in recent times. The difference between third place and Spain’s ‘big’ two in the past five years reads – 24, 39, 25, 28 and 17. This season Atletico have finished three points ahead.
There was an expectation on the Iberian peninsula throughout the season that Atleti could not possibly maintain a serious title challenge, that at some point the wheels would fall off. Yet, it never really happened. After 25 minutes played at the Camp Nou though, there were signs.
Diego Costa, Atletico’s main protagonist, was forced to leave the field. He was quickly followed by Arda Turan. It seemed that the ‘jinx’ that for so years so many had pinned to Atletico to explain their misfortune was returning. Then Alexis Sanchez scored a simply sublime goal that seemed to go through Miranda rather than around and it to the very top corner of the goal. Thibaut Courtois could not absolutely nothing.
It was all going pear-shaped for the visitors. Simeone was captured on camera shaking his head in disbelief. Barca were dominating and pushing for another. One got the sense that one-nil up and at home, they were on their way to retaining their league crown.
But after the break something changed. Atletico came out guns blazing. They were not going to give up, not yet. They pushed forward, pegging Barca back. David Villa hit the post for the third time in two matches against his old club. It was not to be, for him. But, for Diego Godin it was to be. The Uruguayan rose highest on a corner to head down and home the equalizer. Matters were levelled and if it stayed this way, Atletico would be champions.
And it did stay this way. Showing lots heart and head too, the Vicente Calderon outfit kept Barca at bay as they held out until full time. They were champions, after eighteen years.
In recognition of their performance and their achievement, Atleti were given a round of applause from the Barca faithful. It was a fitting end to their remarkable season. Simeone said it was “wonderful”. As for Barca, they received jeers from their own fans, Lionel Messi the main target.
It was not Barca’s year. It was Atletico’s year. This was their time and, almost wholly responsible for it was their coach, Simeone. The Argentine has transformed Atletico, the team and the club. And it might not be over yet, as Gabi declared on Sunday night at Plaza Neptuno, “it is just the beginning”.