Atletico Madrid have long suffered an inferiority complex to Spain’s two giants. Who wouldn’t? Real Madrid and Barcelona have perennially dominated Spanish football and often, European football. Several teams have attempted to break this duopoly, some have succeeded, none has sustained.
Diego Simeone’s Atletico has come as close as any to sustainably challenge the two giants. Los Colchoneros can take a huge step towards securing a 11th La Liga title when they face Barcelona on Saturday at the Camp Nou. The situation is not too different from 2014, when Atleti drew in Barcelona to secure their last La Liga title on the final day of the season.
BUILDING THE TEAM
At the turn of the 2010s decade, this duopoly was as strong as ever. Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho. The biggest names in world football all wanted a piece of El Clasico. To break the pair’s control of the La Liga title would need something special and that is exactly what Simeone’s Atleti provided.
7 – Diego Simeone has won seven trophies as Atletico manager, the most in the history of the club:
🏆🏆 UEFA Europa League
🏆🏆 UEFA Super Cup
🏆 Copa del Rey
— OptaJose (@OptaJose) August 15, 2018
The La Liga title though was not a one-off. Atleti had won two Europa League trophies, in 2009-10 and 2011-12, along with a Copa Del Rey in 2013. However, it was the league that was the forbidden chalice with the last success coming in 1996.
The process started by Quique Sanchez Flores five years before culminated with the triumph at Camp Nou.
El Cholo knew that his club had neither the players nor the budget to go toe-to-toe with the big boys playing an attacking brand of football. They had to be smart and they had to be judicious. The side was built on a solid foundation of Thibaut Courtois in goal, Diego Godin and Miranda at the heart of defence, flanked by Juanfran and Felipe Luis.
The defence conceded just 26 goals in 38 games, combined with Atleti’s efficiency in attack meant that Simeone’s men were Spain’s best side overall. They had a steely midfield with captain Gabi and a young Koke supported by Tiago and Arda Turan.
Ateltico have a good history of always having exceptional strikers at the club, especially since the turn of the century. From Fernando Torres to Antoine Griezmann via Sergio Aguero, Atleti have truly been blessed with the finest frontmen. None of them however, won them the league title. The exploits of Diego Costa and David Villa were key to the capital club’s success.
THE FINAL DAY CLASH
Coming into the tie, Atleti needed just a draw to secure the title having a three point advantage over Barcelona. They could have wrapped up the title a week earlier after Barcelona drew with Elche and Real Madrid lost to Celta Vigo. However, Costa and co. could only manage a 1-1 draw which meant Barcelona could steal the title with a win on the final day.
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) March 31, 2016
Atletico had already knocked out Tata Martino’s Barcelona in the Champions League quarterfinals 2-1 on aggregate and the Catalans were out for revenge. For the capital side, it was effectively the first of two finals – the second one in the Champions League against city rivals Real.
The match began acrimoniously, with the team’s top scorer Costa pulling up the 16th minute as Atletico attempted to break and had to be substituted. It turned into a double whammy soon after with Arda Turan being forced off as well with a back problem.
Just after the half hour mark, Alexis Sanchez gave the Blaugrana the lead, smashing in a bouncing loose ball past a helpless Courtois. The writing, it seemed, was on the wall for Simeone and Atletico. They went into the break a goal down with the title in Barcelona’s hands.
However, their fortunes turned after what can definitely be presumed was a passionate team talk by El Cholo. Villa turned sharply and fired a shot at goal only to be denied by the post. Just four minutes after the restart, Godin rose above everyone to nod in the equaliser from captain Gabi’s corner. Parity restored, the title resnatched.
After that, Atletico did what they knew best. Defended. Barcelona tried with all their misfiring might to break them down but were unable to do so. Dani Alves fired a shot which was well palmed over by Courtois. Messi smashed in a volley only to have it ruled offside. Gerard Pique went down in the box under soft pressure but no penalty was given.
Martino threw on Neymar to change fortunes but it was well and truly Atletico’s day. As the final whistle blew, in a packed Camp Nou of nearly 100,000 attendees, it was the few thousand in Red and White that celebrated.
— Atlético de Madrid (@atletienglish) May 18, 2018
Los Colchoneros became the champions for the first time in nearly two decades that day and on Saturday they aim to ensure that such a long gap is not repeated. Pique, Messi, Alba and Busquets will remember that day while Atletico only have Koke still at the club from that day. Will we see a repeat of the 2014 final match week or will Barcelona extract their revenge?