La Liga: Glory and redemption at Atletico Madrid

Atletico Madrid leaves it for the last day to pip neighbour Real Madrid in the closest title race in Spanish top-flight football in years.

Atletico Madrid lifted its first La Liga trophy in seven years.   -  AP

In the end there was joy. The joy of proving the detractors wrong, the joy of playing through pain and suffering, the joy of finally scaling the pinnacle of Spanish football once again.

It was a scrap past the finish line for Atletico Madrid despite the club topping the league table for the 25 previous game weeks and holding a 10-point advantage over its nearest rival at the end of January. On the final day of the season, the closest challenger and neighbour Real Madrid overturned a 0-1 deficit to score twice in the final few minutes of its match against Villarreal.

And at Real Valladolid, Atletico manager Diego Simeone was frantically directing traffic on the technical area in the final minute of stoppage time to hold on to a 2-1 lead. When the final whistle came, all the suffering gave way to a collective sigh of relief and the celebrations began.

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It was Atletico’s first La Liga crown in seven years, the moment made extra special by the hundreds of fans who had travelled north and gathered outside the car park of Jose Zorrilla Stadium. With little regard for Covid-19 regulations, the players joined in with the fans to get the party started.

Atletico’s championship win was built on the foundations of its defensive structure, a hallmark of Simeone’s decade-long tenure. The club conceded just 25 goals — the second-best defensive record in Europe’s top flight — picking up from its previous campaigns, when it let in 27 (2019-20), 29 (’18-19) and 22 (’17-18) goals. The club finished second, second and third, respectively, in those seasons.

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To take it to the next level, the side needed a cutting edge to its attacking dimension to complement its solidity at the back. After the departure of Antoine Griezmann to Barcelona, Atletico lacked a match winner in its books. It signed Joao Felix, an exciting 19-year-old attacker, for a club-record fee in 2019, but he has found it hard to settle in Simeone’s demanding system. Felix remains one for the future, while Atleti needed one for the present.

The Suarez zone

Enter Luis Suarez. Cast aside for being past his prime by former Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu, the 33-year-old Suarez was hurting, but for Simeone he was exactly what he needed.

The Uruguayan top-scored with 21 goals in the La Liga campaign. Fifteen of the 21 were either go-ahead, game-tying or game-winning goals, such was his influence.

Ahead of the penultimate game of the season, Simeone described the setting as: “We have entered the Suarez zone.”

Suarez had drawn a blank in his eight previous games. But his manager felt “it is an ideal moment for a footballer like him to find and solve the game situations that the team will need. He is used to games like this and has the experience to do it.”

Atletico manager Diego Simeone waits for his team to receive the trophy at its home stadium, the Wanda Metropolitano, a day after winning the title. Atletico’s championship win was built on the foundations of its defensive structure, a hallmark of Simeone’s decade-long tenure.   -  AP

 

In the penultimate game week against Osasuna, Atleti was down a goal until the 82nd minute, and it was Suarez who came up with the match winner in the 88th minute. It was again left to him to score the title-clinching goal in the 67th minute on the final day of the season. It was the redemption he had craved.

“At the start of the season, with the way I was underestimated... Atletico Madrid opened the door for me, to keep showing that I’m still valid,” a tearful Suarez told Movistar. “A lot of people have suffered with me. My wife, my kids, they’re with me day-to-day. I’ve been in football for many years and this is the year they’ve suffered the most.”

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Atletico had a 10-point lead at the end of January before it lost ground to set up a tantalising finish. The side was without Joao Felix, Thomas Lemar, Hector Herrera, Moussa Dembele, Mario Hermoso and Yannick Carrasco from the end of January to the second week of February due to Covid-19. Defender Kieran Trippier served a 10-week ban between December and February. Atleti’s poor away form — two wins from eight matches before the final match day — allowed Real and Barcelona to close the gap.

Duopoly broken

Real’s push for the title was impressive on two counts. Only Karim Benzema (23 goals) managed to hit the double-digit mark for goal-scoring and the squad had plenty of injuries and Covid-related concerns to contend with. Skipper Sergio Ramos and centre-back partner Raphael Varane missed the final stretch of the season, Eden Hazard was on the periphery once again and defender Dani Carvajal was out for the majority of the season. While both Atletico and Barca had 10 different outfield players make more than 30 appearances in the league, Real had only six do so. During Zinedine Zidane’s time as Real manager, the club has sought to invest in youth rather than take the Galactico approach. However, since Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure in 2018, Real has scored just 67 (2020-21), 70 (’19-20) and 63 (’18-19) goals in the league when compared to the 94 (’17-18), 106 (’16-17) and 110 (’15-16) goals in the three seasons preceding his exit.

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Barca was unsettled before the ball got rolling in the season with the sale of Suarez, talisman Lionel Messi threatening to leave and an underwhelming transfer window. Ronald Koeman was coerced out of his Netherlands job in late August. Barca had a slow start to the season picking up just four wins from its first 10 matches.

Atletico Madrid's Luis Suarez celebrates with fans after winning the title. The Uruguayan top-scored with 21 goals in the La Liga campaign. Fifteen of the 21 were either go-ahead, game-tying or game-winning goals, such was his influence.   -  AP

 

Despite letting Suarez go, Barca managed to score 85 goals, 18 more than each of the Madrid clubs. Messi struck 30 goals and set up nine to fire Barca in attack. What hurt the club most was its lapses in defence. Barca conceded 38 goals, 13 more than Atletico and 10 more than second-placed Real. Barcelona lost eight crucial points from winning positions in the last six matches and ultimately finished seven points behind title-winner Atletico.

The seven previous titles were shared by Real and Barca — the two biggest clubs in Spain and arguably the world. But Atletico under Simeone has carved its own space at the top of La Liga.

Earlier, after every success, Atletico would lose its top talents to Barca or Real — or other European heavyweights — but with Suarez and other players pledging their future to the club, it won't be easy for the two Spanish giants to knock Atletico off its perch.

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