Atletico Madrid overcomes deficit, injuries to draw Barcelona, win La Liga
La Liga's duopoly has finally met its match, and what a worthy match it proved to be.
Despite enduring injuries to two of its most valuable players and going behind by a goal in enemy territory, Atletico Madrid capped its remarkable season with a 1-1 draw with Barcelona at Camp Nou, securing the Spanish league championship in the process. Needing just a tie to hold on for its 10th title all time, and first since 1995-1996, Atletico had Uruguayan center back Diego Godin play the role of hero, heading home the decisive goal in the 49th minute.
The match started off in Murphy's Law fashion for the victors. Star forward Diego Costa was forced out in the 15th minute with a recurrence of his recent hamstring injury, sitting in tears on the bench as reality set in that he may not be able to feature in next Saturday's UEFA Champions League final vs. Real Madrid. In the 22nd minute, Turkish winger Arda Turan went off with an injury of his own.
Barcelona took advantage soon after. In the 34th minute Alexis Sanchez put the hosts ahead and in position for the title with a wicked strike from an impossible angle. Cesc Fabregas' chip into the area was chested down by Lionel Messi, and Sanchez, the Chilean star who will attempt to thwart Spain's World Cup hopes in group play, unleashed a right-footed laser by Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois in to the upper right-hand corner.
As has been the case all year long, Atletico Madrid did not wilt in the face of adversity (to say nothing of how the club has managed to stay extremely competitive over the years despite losing the likes of Diego Forlan, Sergio Aguero and Radamel Falcao to big-money transfers). Former Barcelona forward David Villa nearly leveled the score immediately after halftime, but he hit the post with his attempt. Moments later, Godin brought Atletico Madrid back to life with a free header off a corner kick, tilting the title scale back in Atleti's favor.
From there, Atletico's stifling defense, which conceded a league-best 26 times in 38 matches, took over. Barcelona had a couple of chances to snatch the title back, with Messi having a potential go-ahead goal waved off in the 64th minute for being offside. With pressure mounting, Dani Alves had his rip from distance on the 80-minute mark palmed away by Courtois, the on-loan Chelsea goalkeeper who has risen to stardom in Madrid.
Desperation time proved to be fruitless for the Barcelona, and Atletico heads to next weekend's Champions League final against its city rival with league bragging rights -- something that has long belonged to either Barca or Real.
Either Barcelona or Real Madrid had won every Spanish league crown since 2004-2005 and all but two since 2000 (Valencia enjoyed a pair of triumphant campaigns). The two giants had combined for 54 of the league's previous 82 championships.
Atletico, which reportedly had an away fan section of 447 fans among a sea of blue, red and yellow at Camp Nou, earned its championship, finishing with 90 points -- three ahead of both second-place Barcelona and third-place Real Madrid. In addition to making the Champions League final (eliminating Barcelona in the process), the Rojiblancos played Barca to draws in four other meetings and won the necessary battle in the Champions League quarterfinals.
During a year in which Barcelona imported Neymar, Real Madrid imported Gareth Bale and Atletico lost Falcao, manager Diego Simeone molded his team into a juggernaut and stands rightfully atop of the Spanish soccer world. Doubt him and his sure-to-be-underdog club in the Champions League final at your own peril.