Pitchside

Magnificent Atletico Madrid prove that teams still trump superstars

Pitchside

As Diego Simeone hauled an inconsolable Arda Turan into his arms – with Diego Costa quietly sobbing on the bench – the 447 away fans inside the Nou Camp could have been forgiven for thinking it was a sign of things to come.

Then Alexis Sanchez crashed an unbelievable shot into the top corner to compound the visitors’ injury woes and fire Barcelona ahead in the winner-takes-all Liga decider.

Atletico’s task was daunting: brush aside the loss of two key players and equalise against a rejuvenated Barcelona, all while trying to tune out a 90,000-strong partisan crowd screaming at them to fail.

But, incredibly, they did just that.

[Atletico stun Barcelona to claim Spanish title]

It was one of the greatest achievements in the history of the beautiful game. Plucky Atletico Madrid had taken on the Spanish duopoly and won. Not by throwing millions at the project as per Chelsea and Manchester City – and PSG and Monaco – but by building a team greater than the sum of its parts.

Real Madrid signed Gareth Bale for £85.3 million in the summer; Barcelona secured Neymar for a disputed figure of around £70 million – but neither star signing has made the same impact as the red and white (or yellow) collective.

[Atletico’s ENTIRE TEAM cost £20m less than Fernando Torres]

When they disposed of Chelsea in the Champions League with a ruthless display of attacking football, much was made of their bargain squad and team ethos. It was a spirit that has seen them launch a relentless pursuit for domestic and European honours and helped them quickly forget their setbacks.

Last weekend’s limp showing at home to Malaga suggested the pressure had overawed them; the second half against Barcelona suggested they could march on to seal a remarkable double against neighbours Real Madrid in next week's Champions League final.

They refused to be swathed by self-pity despite Costa and Turan’s respective injuries – not to mention Sanchez’s rocket, a stunning strike from a position where even taking a shot seemed ludicrous. They regrouped at the interval and started to make chances – and even when David Villa blew two major openings they kept on going, spurred on by their charismatic leader Diego Simeone, and drew level through Diego Godin’s thumping header.

It was fitting that the title-winning goalscorer was not an attacking star, some eyecatching player who would wrongly have stolen the headlines. Because this was a season built on a monumental team effort with that final hurdle being scaled collectively in the Nou Camp cauldron.

Inevitably, a combination of their exertions and nerves saw them drop deeper as the clock ticked past the hour mark. Their renowned harrying style – one that brought dividends against Barca in the Champions League quarter-finals – was replaced by defensive steel as their more illustrious opponents swarmed forward.

Here was the chance for Lionel Messi to confirm himself as the world’s best, by single-handedly winning his side the title to cast aside memories of a disappointing season.

But instead of reproducing his best ever Barcelona form, he was reverting to Argentina mode: this was not the Messi of the 2009 Liga and European champions, but instead the wayward Messi of the 2010 World Cup, drifting through the match looking bright but providing limited end product. There can now be few who can deny that, at this moment, Cristiano Ronaldo is the world’s best.

The phrase ‘putting bodies on the line’ is often overused, but Atleti exhibited the perfect example as Barca started to find space on the edge of their area. With each lunge, the implausible came closer to fruition.

When Gerardo Martino reversed his decision to bench seven-times Liga champion Xavi in favour of a more youthful line-up, it was confirmation that Barcelona had run out of ideas. They continued to throw men forward in search of a dramatic winner, but it was the visitors who looked more like scoring on the counter-attack.

The referee’s whistle was accompanied by a smattering of applause from the home faithful – acceptance for Atletico to join Spain’s elite-footballing class from those who, moments before, were praying they bottled it.

It was official: Atletico Madrid had achieved the seemingly impossible and bagged their own version of La Decima – their 10th Liga title. And the 447 fans perched up in the gods will be able to say: “I was there”.

Atletico celebrate in the Nou Camp changing room (@AlderweireldTob)

Now Atleti have the opportunity to cap a season of almost ridiculous overachievement with a Champions League crown, and in the process derail local rivals Real Madrid's hunt for that elusive Decima.

Ben Snowball - On Twitter: @BenSnowball

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