Virtually betrayed by a world-class goal scorer from one of his best rivals, Atletico Madrid met Luis Suarez’s goals to prove that his former team is wrong and the competitive spirit for all, preached by Diego Simeone for the Spanish league title.
Here’s how Atletico beat Real Madrid and Barcelona for their first league crown in seven years:
With Barcelona sinking into rising debt and a untitled season coming out, the club told Suarez in September – the third-ever leading scorer, no less – to find a new home.
After failing in Italy, Barcelona stunned their fans by selling Suarez cheaply to Atletico to cut their salaries. The transfer fee, which with additions could reach only 6 million euros ($ 7 million), was a ridiculously small amount for a player who scored 21 goals for Barcelona last season.
The deal turned out to be a boon for Simeone. Finally, he had a ruthless finisher in Suarez, who lost speed at the age of 34, but retains his killer instinct when the ball reaches him somewhere near the net. The Uruguayan striker scored 21 goals for his new club and gave him a frightening attack, which also opened up space for his teammates.
This included winners from Suarez in both of Atletico’s last two games for the season he was behind. In the 88th minute, Suarez ended a 2-1 victory against Osasuna in the second to last round to keep Atletico ahead of Madrid. And no one was bigger than his goal in the second half to end the victory behind Valladolid.
After the victory in Valladolid, Suarez was overwhelmed by an outburst of emotions, which gathered the joy of victory and the satisfaction of making Barcelona regret his departure. After embracing his teammates and coaches, Suarez sat down on the lawn and made a video call, apparently to his wife and children, where he was crying openly.
“It was a difficult season for the situation I had to go through, starting the season the way it was, it was not respected (from Barcelona) and Atletico opened the door for me,” said Suarez, speaking through tears after the final whistle. “I will always be grateful to this great club for that. I have been in football for many years and I think it was the most difficult year for me.”
THE MAN IN BLACK
Simeone’s remaining strength, his ability to continue to engage his players and keep their faith intact after almost a decade led by the club, is what separates the Argentine from the vast majority of his coaching brothers.
Since taking over the club in January 2012, he has never deviated from his mantra of moving forward “match by match”, a message that never allows his players to become complacent or lose focus on the match. Nor has Simeone ever been embarrassed by rivals who criticize his shortcomings, his original style of defense. While Wanda Metropolitano Stadium was silent without fans because of the pandemic, Simeone was still a force as he pursued the touch line in his all-black coat and tie.
But this does not mean that Simeone is completely in his own way. Preferring a 4-4-2 formation, Simeone deployed 3-5-2 this season to use a three-man back line. The trio of central defender Stefan Savic, Filipe Augusto and Mario Hermoso allowed wing defenders Renan Lodi and Kieran Tripier to push forward and help midfielder Koke Resurecen. Zinedine Zidane and Ronald Koeman also used three-man defense in Madrid and Barcelona respectively. The difference was that Atletico did it, although I did not allow more chances. And when the attackers were released, there was Jan Oblak to stop them. The Slovenian goalkeeper anchored a defense that allowed a low 25 goals in 38 games.
Simeone became the most successful coach in the history of his club with his title from the second championship, taking his result to eight trophies since transforming Atletico into a winner.
A serious master of tasks, day after day, Simeone burst out laughing after the last whistle on Saturday and did not lose his huge smile after that. He hugged his family before boarding the team bus as his players celebrated Queen’s “We Are the Champions.”
GREAT START, BUILDING END
Atletico had a great start to the season, leveling the club record in the first half of the season – the first 19 rounds – with 50 points. This allowed the red and whites to find a double-digit lead over both Madrid and Barcelona. Then came the disappointment, and an advantage that seemed insurmountable quickly diminished to just two points. Atletico dug in and started winning again as his opponents slipped into the chase. Atletico’s 0-0 draw at the Camp Nou earlier this month sank Barcelona’s chances of overtaking them.
This had to be the year of Joao Felix to shine, providing youth and playmaking along with Suarez’s experience. However, the 21-year-old Portuguese striker failed to continue his promising start in the campaign and fell from the starting 11 of Simeone.
Simeone turned to the less loud but more effective Marcos Llorente, Angel Correa and Yannick Carasco to achieve the goals.
After his breakthrough last season when he scored twice at Anfield to help eliminate Liverpool from the Champions League, Llorente provided Simeone with a flexible player who can work as a striker, midfielder and winger. He chipped with 12 goals. Korea added nine goals, including an equalizer against Valladolid. And when Atletico struggled, Carasco, a fast left winger, scored four goals and made four assists.