In the end, Atletico Madrid pulled themselves over the line in the only way Atletico Madrid know how. Diego Simeone had spoken about his desire to modernise his team, to develop their style of play, and there were signs of that earlier in the season, but when it really mattered his trademark ‘Cholismo’ philosophy proved the difference.
Atleti had to come from behind in both of their final two fixtures of the season, with goals from Angel Correa and Luis Suarez enough to clinch the title on the final day. In this was the proof of what separated them from the rest. While others around them wilted, Atletico Madrid had the spirit and presence of mind to make difficult circumstances work to their advantage.
On January 31, Simeone’s side held a 10-point lead at the top of the table only for a run of just seven wins from 16 games to whittle down that advantage. This, however, saw Atleti enter their comfort zone. While Simeone has favoured a more expansive approach this season, there is still no team better at grinding out results.
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What made this season’s Spanish title race so compelling were the weaknesses that stopped any team from running away with the trophy. Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Real Madrid and even Sevilla, who looked like genuine contenders for a spell, are all deeply flawed sides.
Atletico Madrid, however, were the closest to the full package, albeit not by much. Barcelona looked to have found their groove, winning 13 out of 14 games before the April defeat to Real Madrid. Ultimately, Ronald Koeman’s team weren’t underpinned by the tactical and ideological values needed to fuel a title triumph.
The same could be said of Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid, who are in desperate need of rejuvenation. Injuries were a factor in the way Los Blancos faltered towards the end of the campaign, but this is the risk that comes with having so many key players over the age of 30 - Karim Benzema, Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, and Sergio Ramos.
Of course, it was a player over the age of 30 that made the biggest difference for Atletico Madrid this season. Barcelona’s decision to offload Luis Suarez to a direct rival last summer raised eyebrows at the time, even more so now that the Uruguayan, who scored 21 times in 32 appearances, has fired his new team to the title.
Following a common theme, Suarez also has his flaws. The Uruguayan's fitness has been questioned at times. In a number of games, it seemed the 34-year-old needed three golden opportunities to score one - of Suarez’s four shots against Real Valladolid, only one of them was on target.
These are complaints made against Suarez in his final season at Barcelona, but he still gave Atleti the sort of cutting edge in front of goal they had lacked since Antoine Griezmann’s departure. The way the Uruguayan led the line often evoked memories of Diego Costa’s first spell at the capital club.
In an ideal world, Atletico Madrid would have spared themselves the torture of final day nerves by getting the job done a few games earlier. Simeone’s side developed a habit for conceding late goals down the stretch with Athletic Club, Levante and Real Madrid all snatching points Atleti should have had in the bag. This team doesn’t quite have the mental resolve of the title-winning side of 2013/14. That Atletico Madrid team probably still stands as the club’s greatest ever.
But this achievement still demonstrated the best qualities of Simeone’s Atleti, as well as some of the worst. This season’s La Liga title race will live long in the memory for the moments of anguish it generated just as much as the moments of triumph. Atletico Madrid are imperfect champions of an imperfect title race.
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