Atletico Madrid stuns Barcelona to claim first La Liga title in 18 years
MAY 17, 2014 1:50p ET
Everything that could go wrong seemed to be going wrong for Atletico Madrid in Saturday’s La Liga decider at Barcelona's Camp Nou, but Diego Simeone's amazing side from the strength from somewhere to come back get the draw they needed to take this season's Spanish championship title.
''Today we could make history,'' Atletico coach Simeone said. ''Not at any moment did I feel that the game was getting away from my team. I know them. I knew they could respond, and the bigger the challenge, the better.''
In the first final day head to head shoot-out in since 1951, Atletico first lost key players Diego Costa and Arda Turan through injury, then went behind to an Alexis Sanchez wonder-strike. But Simeone's men kept believing, and kept fighting. Diego Godin's header drew them level, and Atletico easily stood firm through a pretty lame Barca final onslaught to claim a first La Liga crown in 18 years.
The drama began right from the off. Before the game could really settle into a pattern Arda - and his Atletico teammate Costa -- were both off the pitch. First Costa pulled up mid-run and put his hand in the air to call for attention before slumping to the turf. Just minutes later Arda limped from the pitch after an accidental clash with Cesc Fabregas. Adrian Lopez and Raul Garcia were the replacements. Both departed players sat in tears watching from the bench.
Even still Barca struggled to seize the initiative. Messi was trying to do things quickly, before Atletico’s defense could get set, but nothing was coming off for him at all. Home attacks were too rushed, too frantic, and the only chances were headers from Alexis and Pedro Rodriguez which caused visiting goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois no problems.
Then, on 33 minutes, out of nothing Barca scored. Alves, Fabregas and Messi were involved in a move around the edge of the Atletico box, but the danger seemed minimal until Sanchez whacked an unstoppable volley past a stunned Courtois to the net from a tight angle. This was the first time Barca had been ahead on the scoreboard in all six games against Atletico this season, and the 95,000 strong home support erupted with joy.
You could have forgiven Simeone’s men for thinking the game was now up, as everything was stacked against them, but they showed impressive mental strength to dig in and go again. With captain Gabi pushing them on from midfield they forced four corners in a row before halftime. But [stand-in] goalkeeper Jose Pinto stood strong enough to keep the danger away.
Simeone’s side came out after the break in similar determined fashion. And they were almost level seconds in when Villa turned superbly eight yards out and hammered a shot low off the near post. It was tremendous battling stuff from the men in yellow and they had their equalizer just seconds later. Gabi’s corner was met by an unmarked Diego Godin just eight yards out and he hammered his header to the net. The Camp Nou was in stunned silence as Atletico’s players piled on in celebration.
There was more bad news for Barca when Sergio Busquets pulled up lame and the rarely convincing Alex Song [not the watching Xavi Hernandez] was went on as sub. Barca continued to struggle to impose their game, and Martino sent on Neymar for the ineffective Pedro.
Messi had also had little influence on the game, but we were reminded he was there when he volleyed to the net from close range. The roars around the Camp Nou were cut short however as the flag was [correctly] raised for offside. As time ticked away all 20 outfield players were often well inside the Atletico half. An Iniesta shot was blocked by the massed ranks, Messi drove a free kick straight at the defensive wall. But still Courtois had little to do.
There was loud applause as Martino finally called Xavi from the bench, for the last 15 minutes. He almost immediately created a chance for Neymar, but the clipped ball was just too high. Centerback Pique was pressed into action as an emergency number 9 to fight for high balls forward -- while Messi foraged deep in midfield. It looked the very antithesis of Barca’s recent footballing philosophy.
The final seconds were agonizingly tense, before referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz blew up. Atletico's substitutes and coaches raced onto the pitch, as their exhausted teammates sunk to their knees. The tiny 447 strong travelling support roared their delight. It was really true -- the 100/1 outsiders at the start of the year had done it.
Barca’s season is now over, with Martino, long serving captain Carles Puyol, and goalkeeper Victor Valdes among those set to leave. An even greater summer squad shake-up looks likely after this shocking end to what has been an awful season for the blaugrana club.
''We tried it until the end with dignity and we met an opponent that was better than we were,'' Martino said. ''I want to congratulate the great rival Atletico has been during the entire season.''
Meanwhile Atletico go on to next week’s Champions League final against city rivals Real Madrid in Lisbon with the title in the bag, hopes that Costa and Turan will be fit, but most importantly of all La Liga medals in their back pockets.
''We fought all season long, hanging on against difficult teams, and against Real Madrid and Barcelona,'' Godin said. ''We felt the pressure, a lot of things were going against us. But the coach told us just to be confident, and believe in ourselves, and the goal would come.''
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.