Diego Simeone the key to Atletico Madrid’s ’s Primera Liga title victory
Atletico Madrid rounded off the best season in the club’s 111-year history on Saturday by claiming their 10th La Liga title with a 1-1 draw away to Barcelona.
A first league title for 18 years under former player Diego Simeone completes the remarkable transformation of the club that once nicknamed themselves “the cursed ones”.
When Simeone arrived back at Atletico two days before Christmas in 2011, the club sat four points from the relegation zone and had just been eliminated by third-tier Albacete over two legs in the Copa del Rey.
Nearly two-and-a-half years later nine of those beaten by Albacete were parading around Stamford Bridge having just defeated Chelsea 3-1 to reach the club’s first Champions League final for 40 years.
Simeone had been welcomed back as a prodigal son straight away. A key component of the side the last time Atletico won the league 18 years ago, the club’s spiral coincided with his departure as just four seasons later they were relegated.
Led back to the top flight by a fresh-faced Fernando Torres, the Atletico fans became accustomed to loving and losing as one by one each of their heroes was picked off by richer foes abroad.
Torres’ transfer to Liverpool in 2007 was followed by the departures of Sergio Aguero, Diego Forlan and David de Gea before Simeone’s appointment.
Even a period of sustained success under the Argentine which reaped the Europa League in 2012, Champions League qualification and a first victory over Real Madrid in 14 years in the Copa del Rey final last season, Atletico couldn’t hold onto their star player.
Last summer it was Radamel Falcao who departed in a 60 million euro (HK$636 million) move to football’s latest nouveau riche fad in Monaco.
Yet, Simeone’s incessant focus on a team that work completely as one rather than relying on individual stars has, even in Falcao’s absence, propelled Los Rojiblancos to even greater achievements.
Simeone’s repeated soundbites in press conferences had played down Atletico’s title chances at every chance this season.
However, after the first leg of their Champions League semi-final against Chelsea, his mask slipped slightly when bombarded by questions linking top scorer Diego Costa to Chelsea next season.
“We may envy others for wealth, but we envy no one for competitive spirit,” he replied.
It is that unrelenting competitiveness that has allowed Atletico to achieve what few believed was possible in derailing Barcelona and Real Madrid’s hegemony at the top of La Liga.
When Valencia last achieved the feat 10 years ago, the world and Spanish football was in a different place. An economic boom had allowed the likes of Valencia and Deportivo la Coruna to spend well beyond their means to compete at home and abroad.
Whilst the financial crisis has crippled the rest of Spanish football in the meantime, Barcelona and Real have continuously got richer thanks to their expanding brands around the globe and an imbalanced TV deal structured to allow the big two to take nearly 50 per cent of the total value of the rights.
Last summer every single La Liga side lost one or more of their best players barring Barca and Madrid. The continued exodus of the likes of Alvaro Negredo, Jesus Navas, Roberto Soldado, Falcao and Fernando Llorente only serving to increase the gap.
When Valencia won the league 10 years ago they did so with 77 points. For the past two seasons Real and Barca were crowned champions respectively with 100.
A three-way race has lowered that tally slightly this season, but Atletico easily surpassed their club record of 87, which came in a 22-team league in 1995/96, to register 90.
To keep that level of consistency up for 38 games is extraordinary in itself, to do so in a season in which they will play 61 matches in total speaks volumes of Simeone’s ability to motivate and manage his squad throughout the season.