BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Practically handed a world-class scorer by one of its top rivals, Atlético Madrid rode the goals of Luis Suárez and the competitive team spirit preached by Diego Simeone to the Spanish league title.
Here’s how Atlético beat out Real Madrid and Barcelona for its first Liga crown in seven years:
A PERFECT GIFT
With Barcelona sunk in mounting debt and coming off a season without a title, the club in September told Suárez — its third all-time leading scorer no less — that he needed to find a new home.
After a move to Italy fell through, Barcelona stunned its fans by selling Suárez on the cheap to Atlético to shed his salary. The transfer fee that with add-ons could only reach 6 million euros ($7 million) was a ludicrously small sum for a player who had netted 21 goals for Barcelona in the previous season.
The deal proved to be a boon for Simeone. Finally, he had a ruthless finisher in Suárez who, at age 34, has lost quickness but maintains his killer instinct when the ball reaches him anywhere near the net. The Uruguay striker scored 21 goals for his new club and gave it an intimidating point of attack that also opened up space for his teammates.
That included winners by Suárez in both of Atlético's final two matches of the season where it was trailing. Suárez's 88th-minute strike completed a 2-1 comeback win over Osasuna in the second-to-last round to keep Atlético in front of Madrid. And none was bigger than his second-half goal to complete the come-from-behind victory against Valladolid.
THE MAN IN BLACK
Simeone’s staying power, his ability to continue to engage his players and keep their faith intact after almost a decade in charge of the club, is what separates the Argentine from the overwhelming majority of his coaching brethren.
Since taking over the club in January 2012, he has never wavered from his mantra of going forward “game by game," a message that never lets his players grow complacent or lose their focus on the match at hand. Nor has Simeone ever been shamed by rivals who criticize his no frills, defense-first playing style. While the Wanda Metropolitano Stadium was silent without fans because of the pandemic, Simeone was still a force as he stalked the touchline in his all-black coat and tie.
But that does not mean that Simeone is completely set in his ways. After years of preferring a 4-4-2 formation, Simeone deployed a 3-5-2 this season to use a three-man backline. The centerback trio of Stefan Savic, Filipe Augusto and Mario Hermoso allowed wing backs Renan Lodi and Kieran Trippier push forward and help Koke Resurección's midfield. Zinedine Zidane and Ronald Koeman also used a three-man defense at Madrid and Barcelona, respectively. The difference was that Atlético did so while not conceding more chances. And when attackers did get free, there was Jan Oblak to stop them. The Slovenia goalkeeper anchored a defense that allowed a league-low 25 goals in 38 games.
Since Simeone has transformed Atlético into a winner, he has claimed two Spanish league titles, one Copa del Rey, two UEFA League titles, and twice reached the final of the Champions League.
GREAT START, GRITTY FINISH
Atlético had a great start to the season, equaling a club record in the opening half of the season — the first 19 rounds — with 50 points. That allowed the red-and-whites to open up double-digit leads over both Madrid and Barcelona. Then came the letdown, and an advantage that looked insurmountable quickly dwindled to just two points. Atlético dug in and started winning again, while its rivals slipped in their chase. Atlético's 0-0 draw at Camp Nou earlier this month sunk Barcelona’s chances of overtaking them at the wire.
This was supposed to be João Félix’s year to shine, providing youth and playmaking alongside Suárez’s experience. The 21-year-old Portugal forward, however, failed to keep up his promising start to the campaign and fell out of Simeone’s starting 11.
Simeone turned to the less flashy but more effective Marcos Llorente, Ángel Correa and Yannick Carrasco to help get the goals.
Following his breakout last season when he scored twice in Anfield to help eliminate Liverpool from the Champions League, Llorente provided Simeone with a versatile player who played as a forward, a midfielder and a wing back. He chipped in with 12 goals. Correa added nine goals, including the equalizer against Valladolid. And when Atlético was stumbling down the stretch, Carrasco, a speedy left-side winger, netted four goals and made four assists over the last eight games.
More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
Joseph Wilson, The Associated Press