Atlético Madrid win it the hard way to live up to Diego Simeone’s prediction | Sid Lowe
When at last it was all over Diego Simeone let everyone in on a little secret. With four or five games to go and Atlético Madrid on edge, anxiety gripping and their pursuers closing in, he got together the physios, staff and the people on the gates at the Metropolitano and Cerro del Espino – the first faces the players see every day – and told them to change. “From now on,” he said, “instead of saying ‘good morning’, we greet them with: ‘We’re going to be champions.’” So they did and they were, the club’s 11th league title celebrated in a car park in Valladolid on Saturday night.
“We did it the hard way,” said Kieran Trippier, and ultimately it was the best way too, even if they didn’t appreciate that until the end. The first British player to win La Liga outside Real Madrid or Barcelona, Trippier was the last man to kick a ball in the 2020-2021 title race, sprinting across and smashing it off an opponent and into the empty seats. Turning to face Simeone, the two of them stood chests out, roaring at each other. It was 92 minutes and 31 seconds into the last game and a season lived on the edge still wasn’t officially over but there was something definitive about it, like this was finally done.
Defeated by an Iñigo Martínez header on 85.49 in week 33, Atlético had to hang on to get this far. Against Elche, Fidel Chaves’s penalty hit their post at 91.35. Against Barcelona, Lionel Messi’s free-kick bent an inch past the corner on 89.58. Against Real Sociedad, the tension tore at them, Simeone talking “suffering” and “vertigo”, publicly admitting: “anxiety exists”. Against Osasuna, they needed goals on 81.35 and 87.33 and a Jan Oblak save on 95.13 to win. And then it happened again, the title not just going down to the very last day but the very last seconds, as Simeone always said it would.
One down, Ángel Correa and Luis Suárez had turned it round. But 195km away at Valdebebas, Real Madrid equalised in the 88th minute against Villarreal then scored a winner on 91.37. Between those goals, Atlético had seen Sergi Guardiola miss a great chance on 89.36 which, as it turned out, would have cost them the title. So when Trippier arrived it wasn’t just a clearance, it was a statement, like twatting it at last took the tension away. Time too: Trippier exchanged a look with Koke and threw the ball to João Félix, the final final whistle going before he could bring it under control.
Which was when Simeone burst into laughter. “I don’t know why,” he said, “I don’t understand it. It just made me laugh, a happiness born inside that came out. We did it again.” On the pitch, Suárez sank to his knees. Alongside, a teammate buried his head into the turf. Subs and staff sprinted from the stands. As they leapt about, Koke and Suárez consoled Valladolid’s relegated players. Simeone was given the bumps and dropped, the first thing to slip through Oblak’s fingers all season. Yannick Carrasco chased Trippier with hair clippers. Champagne was sprayed and calls were made, players lying on the grass for Facetime.
Suárez sat, boots off, sobbing as he looked at the screen, his family – Sofi, Delfi, Benja and Lauti – at the other end. “I’ve been in football a long time and this was the hardest year for them,” he told the TV in tears. “It’s a special title, for everything I had to suffer, the way they [Barcelona] belittle you. Atlético Madrid opened their doors and allowed me to prove I was still valid and I’ll always be grateful to this great, great club.”
Oh, he was valid all right. “The Suárez Zone, lads,” Simeone laughed a little later. “It’s Luis Suárez. Luis Suárez. His name says it all. He’s different. A goalscorer, an animal, a killer, a winner. I told him: you know what this is about, you have to transmit that to the rest. He came to rebel.” Urgent, sharp, Suárez’s was the voice most heard all season – during celebrations too – and ultimately his was the story: The Suárez Zone was 2020-21, his fifth title in seven years. He scored 21 goals and contributed 21 points, securing the last two decisive victories. But it wasn’t just that Suárez changed them, it was that he is them. As Simeone said: “He has a lot of what we are.” And nor was he alone.
This was also Oblak and Stefan Savic and Mario Hermoso’s title. It was Trippier. Carrasco, with eight goals and seven assists. Correa with his eight assists, nine goals and a humility of which Simeone says “there’s not much of in the world.” Marcos Llorente: 12 goals, 11 assists, all over the place all of the time, the man whose run reawakened them at Valladolid. It was Koke, laying down the flag he had placed on the Bernabéu pitch when Atlético won the Cup in 2013 and the Camp Nou when they won the league in 2014 – the same flag he had on his wall as a kid.
It was all of them, and Simeone too, winning the league seven years on from the last, only Koke and José María Giménez remaining. It was also deserved, no one-off, no fluke, and certainly not a title handed them by Madrid and Barcelona, however painful their laments. It wasn’t just a product of the pandemic either, although Simeone said that made it more meritorious, more meaningful. More emotional than ever, he saw something almost mystical in it, a message. “In a difficult year for the world, Atlético Madrid appears, and it’s not chance,” he said in a hushed, reverential tone. “Power doesn’t always win, work does. Destiny choses big moments to show you that you can, that it’s possible.”
This was a title Atlético had to win twice – win and defend, if you prefer – and one they never let go of. Top after week 12 and every week from then, they spent 27 as leaders and it might have been more had they not started the season two weeks late.At halfway, they had fifty points. By late January, they had a 10-point lead with a game in hand. But then they lost as many points in four games as in four months. If anyone can blow it, it’s them, the line runs. And if this is Atlético, that is Madrid, the T1000 hanging off your bumper. And there’s Leo Messi too, still the difference Simeone said. Many waited for the collapse, to laugh, but it didn’t come.
Instead, on Saturday night Atlético’s players ran to the car park where their fans had travelled to support them from outside the stadium. Carrasco handed his shirt to one who had fainted, Saúl Ñíguez protected another from a truncheon-wielding policeman, Renan Lodi sat at the wheel of the team bus , which pulled out and headed south with palms hammering at the side. “I tell players who come to Atlético that it’s not easy to win here, but you enjoy it more,” Simeone said. Especially like this; it wouldn’t have been the same had they wrapped it up early.
Simeone began talking to his players about resistanceafter drawing at Betis, a plan only applicable if you’ve earned something to hold on to and still not easy to execute. There was not so much a full collapse as a regression to the mean – “the first half of the season wasn’t normal,” Suárez said, which was to be expected. Atlético started late, compressing their calendar, postponed another match because of the snow, and had injury, illness, a 10-game suspension. Still, they only lost three of 19, resisting the pursuit of Madrid – a team that went 18 without defeat.
Besides, a season is 38 games and ultimately Atlético finished two points ahead of Madrid, seven points clear of Barcelona and nine above the best Sevilla team in history. At 86, their total is only one off the last two title winners. In four years, they have finished above Madrid three times and have won as many leagues in the last seven years. Their best players might well have been Llorente and Suárez, unwanted by Madrid and Barcelona.
In May, Madrid and Barcelona passed up opportunities to go top, against Granada and Sevilla respectively, this becoming a title race that kept giving, then taking away then giving back again, but no one gifted Atlético anything. They were on the edge of the abyss and there were times they could have tumbled over, moments that might have changed everything. “Just incredible, all of it” one player said. Last week Suárez admitted: “I expected to suffer, but not like this.” As he ran through on the final day, Llorente couldn’t bear to look. “Like it or not there are nerves and stress; all kinds of thoughts go through your head,” he said. “But a great group steps up.”
Atlético did. Simeone always said the team that was mentally strongest would win the league. Few expected that to be Atlético but he had sought to calm them, to convince them, and they won four of the last five games, drawing at the Camp Nou to take a step towards the title. When it mattered, they made it. In the final minute of the final day, it was Atlético Madrid who were still standing. They were champions, just as they had been told every morning for a month.