Atletico Madrid won the Spanish league title in extraordinary circumstances Saturday courtesy of a draw at Barcelona that denied the Catalan club the crown.
In a breathless end to a compelling La Liga season, the 1-1 draw meant Atletico won their first championship since 1995/96 and in doing so they broke the hearts of the majority of the 98,000 fans present at the Camp Nou.
It was the Uruguayan defender Diego Godin who wrote his name into Los Rojiblancos’ folklore, the 28-year-old rising high to plant a header into the Barca net just after halftime and stun the home side who were hoping to win their fourth title in only five seasons.
But after Godin had canceled out Alexis Sanchez’s fabulous first-half strike for Barca, the defending champions could find no way back against a team which has defied the odds for most of the season.
Now Atleti will turn their attentions to the unlikeliest of doubles as they face city rivals Real Madrid in a mouthwatering Champions League final in Libson next Saturday.
As a result they will not have long to celebrate this triumph, but it is nevertheless one of huge significance as it has broken the stranglehold Barcelona and Real Madrid have enjoyed over the rest of La Liga for a decade.
The last time neither of the biggest two teams finished top of the pile was in 2003/04, when Valencia beat Barca to the title.
Barca, in truth, looked a shadow of the side that has dominated Spanish football for half a decade. After a season of turmoil on and off the pitch, Gerardo Martino’s side simply did not have the tactical nous or energy with which to overpower an Atletico team who refused to bow to their more illustrious opponents.
It has been a chastening few months for Barcelona. President Sando Rosell resigned in January after allegations surrounding the acquisition of Brazilian forward Neymar last summer, former coach Tito Vilanova tragically passed away in April and club lynchpins Carles Puyol and Victor Valdes have said their goodbyes as they leave the Camp Nou for pastures new.
All the while Barca have struggled on the pitch after a superb start to the season, exiting the Champions League at the hands of Atletico and losing the Spanish Cup final to Real Madrid in April, in the meantime letting the title slip out of their grasp when it was theirs to lose after a 4-3 win at Real in March.
Down to the wire
It was the league no-one could win as Barca, Real and Atleti all threw away points in the final few weeks of the season; the underdogs from Madrid blowing their first chance to win the title outright when they were held 1-1 at home by Malaga last weekend while Barca were drawing 0-0 in Elche.
But when it came down to Saturday’s once-in-a-lifetime showdown at one of the great cathedrals in world sport, Atletico did not fluff their lines, instead producing a performance that owed more to glorious guts and determination than the glamorous ‘tiki-taka’ style with which Barca have won trophies and hearts aplenty in recent years.
And in a league that swung from Barcelona to Real Madrid to Atletico and back all season long, it was no surprise that the once-in-a-lifetime final day showdown saved some of its best twists and turns for the dramatic denouement.
Going into the Camp Nou contest Atleti were three points ahead of Barca and knew a draw would be enough; Barca needed to win and they would take the title by virtue of a better head-to-head record, which is how the final standings in Spain are determined.
In glorious sunshine Barca began brighter and Atleti were soon rocked by injuries to two of their most decisive players, as first talismanic striker Diego Costa — reportedly on his way to Chelsea in the summer — and then classy midfielder Arda Turan limped off in tears at the prospect of their seasons being curtailed so cruelly.
When Alexis seized on a Lionel Messi chest pass in the Atleti box after 33 minutes and rifled a ferocious right-foot shot into the roof of the net from an audacious angle, suddenly Barca were the ones in the driving seat.
But they were also suddenly the ones with everything to lose, and Atletico had clearly not come so far to be denied.
It was the first time Barca had led Atleti in a match since February 2012, seven meetings ago, and they looked uncomfortable doing so as the visitors took the game to them with renewed gusto.
Heading into history books
At the start of the second half they came out like a train, and after David Villa — who won the title with Barca last year — struck the base of the post, Godin rose majestically to score the goal his career and this most remarkable of seasons will be remembered for.
If Atletico looked like they had thrown it away before they were not going to make the same mistake again.
Neymar entered the fray for Barca and he gave them a much greater attacking potency, but Simeone has his team playing in his own image and they blocked and tackled and leaped and chased as if their very lives depended on it.
Messi had a goal rightly ruled out for offside and Dani Alves’ 25-yarder stung the palms of Thibaut Courtois in the Atlei goal but they allowed Barca no closer and as the minutes ticked down, the illogical turned into the inevitable.
The 480-strong band of Atleti fans — parked right up in the gods at the imposing Camp Nou — sung their hearts out, and when the final whistle came and their coaching staff raced on to the pitch to celebrate, the players collapsed as one to the turf in collective disbelief at what they had just done.
In the face of such heartbreak, the reaction from the Barca fans was magical — they stood to a man to applaud the team that had just deposed them as Spanish champions and even sang “Atleti, Atleti” as the players rose to their feet to acknowledge what was happening around them.
If winning the league with a playing budget one-fifth the size of Barca’s and Real’s is a modern day fairy tale in a sport where money increasingly talks, then this finale was pure Hans Christian Andersen.
In Lisbon next Saturday, the brilliant Simeone will hope to cause yet another mighty upset and write one final, captivating chapter in the remarkable story of Atletico Madrid’s season.