Barcelona: Against all the odds and despite suffering a series of setbacks, Atletico Madrid clinched their first La Liga title since 1996, battling back to draw with Barcelona and celebrate this most unlikely of triumphs on the Nou Camp pitch.
A superb strike by Alexis Sanchez had put the Catalans in command in the first half of this final day decider, after Atletico had suffered the loss of their top scorer and talisman Diego Costa to injury, and had to replace Arda Turan too.
But a bullet header from Diego Godin levelled the score early in the second half and Diego Simeone’s brilliant underdogs once again proved their resilience, holding on for the draw that saw them finish three points above Barcelona at the top of the table.
Atletico pick up their 10th title and become the first side since Valencia in 2004 to break Barcelona and Real Madrid’s grip.
However, in a bizarre set of circumstances, the champions were unable to lift the league trophy, which was not present at the Camp Nou as the Spanish football federation’s president, Angel Maria Villar, could not attend the match.
Before kick-off the home fans held aloft a huge mosaic bearing the most simple of messages: “We are Barca.” Many supporters may have wondered just exactly what that meant after this most turbulent of seasons. Many would also have been perturbed at Martino’s decision to again leave out Xavi Hernandez, a player as pivotal as any to the team’s numerous triumphs over the last decade.
On the plus side for the Catalans, Gerard Pique was back in the team after six weeks out with a fractured hip.
There were few surprises in Atletico’s line-up, with Diego Costa recovering as expected from a strained hamstring to start in attack alongside David Villa, who swapped Barcelona for the Rojiblancos last summer.
There was a nervy atmosphere inside the Nou Camp at the start of the game, with little sign the league title was up for grabs. The sense of unease crept onto the pitch, with Pique panicking when attempting to clear a pedestrian cross, sending the ball out for a corner. Barca’s hopes were lifted in the 13th minute when Costa stopped running with the ball still in play, clutching his hamstring, and had to be replaced by Adrian.
The same thing had happened in the first leg of the Champions League quarter final here six weeks earlier. Costa was in tears as he sat down in the dugout, well aware his hopes of being fit again in time for next week’s Champions League are slim.
The usually vibrant Arda Turan followed the striker off the pitch midway through the first half with a muscular problem, Raul Garcia forced to come on far earlier than intended.
Despite their uneasy start, Barca were the only side to create proper chances in the first 45 minutes. First Adriano struck into the hands of Courtois from the left hand side of the area, and then Pedro headed an Alves cross a few feet over the bar. A goal was not imminent, but nor was it undeserved when it arrived.
It originated from a chipped pass by Fabregas into the area. Messi chested it down and the ball bounced at the right height for Sanchez to execute the most venomous of strikes beyond Courtois.
For perhaps the first time this season, the Nou Camp truly burst into life. Also for one of the first times, Atletico looked overwhelmed, resigned to their fate. The only response they managed before the break was a distant effort by Gabi that was easily blocked by Mascherano, and a similarly hopeful shot from Garcia which trickled well wide of Pinto’s goal.
However, Atletico came out much stronger in the second half. Within a minute of the restart, Villa hit the outside of the post, striking the woodwork for the fifth time in his last five starts. Spain’s all-time top scorer has forgotten how to score, unable to find the net since March 8. Villa had another chance a minute later, but took too long to get his shot away. He did however win the corner which lead to the equaliser. Gabi sent in an outswinging corner and Godin rose to aim a bullet header low past Pinto and into the net. The Uruguayan was then buried beneath a pile of his team-mate’s bodies, taking a while to emerge with a huge grin of his face.
Meanwhile, substitute Alvaro Morata notched a late double as Real Madrid warmed up for next weekend’s Champions League final with a 3-1 win at home to Espanyol.
Gareth Bale finished clinically midway through the second half to set Real up for their first victory in four games after a disappointing end to a La Liga campaign that saw their championship hopes wrecked.
Morata showed his predatory skills with two goals in the last five minutes while in between Pizzi pulled one back for Espanyol. Cristiano Ronaldo, chasing the Golden Boot award, was injured in Real’s pre-match warmup and therefore ended the season as joint top league scorer in Europe with Liverpool’s Luis Suarez on 31 goals.
The Portuguese did not want to take any risks ahead of the Champions League showdown with Atletico.