It was the most nerve-racking end to a season imaginable. Atletico Madrid needed just a draw to win the La Liga title after 24 years and Barcelona needed nothing but a win to bring a paltry season to a successful end. And the match did not disappoint.
With a meagre contingent of around 400 or so Atletico fans present in the stadium on Saturday, the Madrid team were greeted by a hostile atmosphere by the 80,000+ Barcelona fans.
But Atletico - led by their charismatic manager - held their heads high and fielded their strongest starting 11. Diego Costa started despite a previous injury while David Villa played alongside him. With captain Gabi at the heart of the midfield, Diego Simeone stuck to his usual tactics and formation.
It certainly would not have felt like home for opposite number Gerardo Martino though, this was to be his last game in charge and the pressure was on him to provide a win. Neymar,Xavi and Jordi Alba were the surprise omissions and Pedro, Cesc Fabregas and Adriano were picked in their place. Martino was obviously gunning for some physical presence by playing the latter two - a prudent tactic - while Pedro added an extra offensive presence.
The match began on a very open and fast paced note. Barcelona were using their impotent style of playing long balls from the right while Atletico - as usual - displayed their gritty and aggressive attitude.
But it was not to be the perfect afternoon for the visitors. With 20 minutes gone, Atletico lost Costa and Arda Turan to injury. Both players - so pivotal to the team - were unable to continue.
However, Atletico Madrid are not a team to cry over spilt milk and despite losing their prolific goalscorer, the team pulled up their socks and played quite normally. Alexis Sanchez had other plans, though.
Arguably Barcelona's most underrated striker scored a goal from a cracker of a volley from an impossible angle from inside the box in the 34th minute. It was all Thibaut Courtois could do to helplessly watch the ball rocket into his net .
Meanwhile, Atletico quickly regained momentum and just as their waves of attacks were reaching a crescendo, the referee’s whistle came to the home side’s rescue.
As the game restarted, the away team attacked with renewed vigour. Villa’s shot hit the post and an (almost) one on-one chance in the box should have been warning enough for Barcelona.
But the Catalans did not heed the sings and in the 49th minute a perfect corner from Koke was met by Diego Godin, who coolly directed the ball into the net. Barcelona once again paid the price for their poor set-piece defending as the Atletico fans inaudibly celebrated.
Simeone soon brought on Sosa for Adrian (who had replaced Costa) and with the added muscle, the midfield became an impregnable wall. Rarely did the ball reach Messi in the centre and although Messi himself was impressive with his dribbling, even the best player in the world cannot take on four players at once.
The tactic of defending in numbers worked flawlessly and even the addition of Neymar and Xavi failed to have any effect on Barca’s blunt sword. Their aerial balls posed little threat and though the flanks to some extent served as recourse to the Atletico goal, the tenacious back four were unbudged. Dani Alves was perhaps the only real threat to Los Rojiblancos.
As the final whistle went, an eerie silence greeted the raucous celebrations of the Atletico Madrid players. However, in a historic and laudable sight, the entire Barcelona stadium gave a standing ovation to the champions of Spain. They knew that this team had deserved the cup. This team have epitomised the phrase ‘champions’.
Atletico will now focus on achieving a historic double by winning the Champions League final next week. Whatever the result, this team will be remembered for its fabulous and stellar season. We hope to see a vibrant Atletico Madrid next season as well.
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