Pitchside

‘General Simeone’ deserves all the credit but Barca set for major changes

Pitchside

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Two Argentine football managers, two contrasting post match reactions, illustrating the thin line between success and failure in sport.

Atletico Madrid's Diego Simeone was close to tears as he faced the media in the press room after his side had drawn 1-1 in Camp Nou. The result was enough to make Atletico Madrid champions of Spain for the first time since 1996, to break the duopoly of Barcelona and Real Madrid, rivals with four times Atletico's wage budget. Rivals who'd finished up to 39 points ahead of Spain's third place team in the last five years, statistics which did the La Liga no favours.

Normally, a manager faces the media grilling alone or with a press spokesman. Simeone came mob-handed with his assistants who stood behind him.

"I want to share this moment with my people," he said. "They might not appear on the television but they work every bit as much, or more. I want to tell you how much I admire them."

The man who has revolutionised Atletico revealed what he'd said to his team at half-time, when they were losing 1-0 and were about to lose the title to Barcelona. They'd also seen Diego Costa and Arda Turan, two of their best players, limp off injured inside the first 25 minutes.

[Scale of Atletico's achievement 'barely believable']

"I told them what I had seen: that we had played well," said Simeone. "Beyond the injuries to important players, I told them that they were fine. I was convinced, I knew that if we could take advantage of the dead balls we would be able to do something."

Atletico did just that, with Diego Godin's 49th minute header levelling the scores. It stayed that way. Simeone explained a little about what made his team champions.

"Game by game, we realised our strength," he said. "We won in Bilbao, in Seville, in Betis, we drew here, we won at the Bernabéu. That game in Bilbao (a 2-1 win on 29th March at Athletic's new San Mames fortress), that really helped the group. That showed them that we were on the right track.

It has been an extraordinary season. When rivals congratulate you and tell you deserve it, it makes it even more special."

Barcelona's players had congratulated their rivals before being booed off the pitch by their own fans. There will be major changes at Camp Nou in the close season. Players like Pedro, Alves, Mascherano, Song, Tello and Fabregas all have uncertain futures. Legends Valdes and Puyol will depart.

Before the booing, almost all the Barcelona fans in the 98,000 crowd also applauded Atletico, a gesture which went down well with everyone.

[Magnificent Atletico Madrid prove that teams still trump superstars]

"That was one of the nicest things in football," said former Barca striker David Villa. "Barça players, coaches and fans showed they have class. They're used to seeing good football and trophies here, we're grateful for such a big applause."

Simeone left the room to more applause. An hour later he was still speaking to journalists.

"Just one more question," they pleaded. It was impossible to sate the demand, but he was happy to talk until he was dragged away.

The mood surrounding Barcelona coach Gerardo Martino was very different. He entered the press room with his sporting director, Andoni Zubizarreta. Martino said what he had to say and didn't invite any questions after.

"I want to tell you that I have agreed with the club that I will no longer be Barcelona manager," he said. "I would like to thank everyone for trusting in me. I am sorry that we did not achieve the objectives that this club had been achieving year after year. I would like to thank absolutely everyone. I want to thank the players. I would rather not talk about their qualities as footballers but as people; this club has great people here. The admiration for them stays, they will keep on winning."

He received some half-hearted applause and got up to leave, before Zubizarreta asked him to remain where he was.

"Tata (Martino) helped us in a difficult moment," he said. "He showed you can be a great coach and a great person. He leaves many friends here."

They left the room in sadness. Had they scored one goal, the mood would have been so different. Tata would have left Barcelona a hero, not a failure.

One goal to win the league. One goal from Lionel Messi. Or any of the other stars at Camp Nou. But Messi, once so effective against Atletico, has been ineffective against Simeone's Atletico, who've learned to snuff him out. So have Barça. They failed to beat Atletico once in their six epic games this season. Five ended in a draw, while the Madrid side scraped a narrow win to knock the Catalans out of the Champions League and continue their progress to next Saturday's Lisbon final against Real Madrid.

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Zubizarreta added: “If Atleti are the champions, it’s because they deserved it. They played a good game and we couldn’t win. We finished second and that’s that. La Liga is a combination of many games and we all have games where we could’ve earned more points.

"We didn’t fail at all. Atletico made it very hard for us to play our game and their play in the counterattack and their strategy is very powerful. Later on we regained control of the match.

“We didn’t complete our objectives; we are prepared to win. Failure is too big a word for me. Not winning titles is a failure, if we talk about where we finished in other competitions, it’s complicated.”

Barça president Josep Maria Bartomeu preferred to look to the future and not back at a club rocked by scandal and tragedy this season.

"We couldn't win any major trophy, but we've been working on a new project for weeks now," he said. "There will be profound changes. A lot happened this season, but the team always kept fighting. Some players know they will leave, but the style will stay the same."

Atletico and their 477 travelling fans who'd been tucked up high on the third tier (plus many more spread around the stadium) headed back to Madrid ahead of Sunday's title celebration around the Neptune fountain. Hundreds of thousands are expected to attend but the party can't go on for days as they'd hope. They have the European Cup final next Saturday, this incredible team led by their inspirational general Simeone.

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