Football Features

El Pistolero fires Atlético to glory: The winners and losers from La Liga’s title-deciding fixtures

By Mohamed Moallim

Published: 19:43, 22 May 2021

The 90th edition of La Liga sensationally came to a close this evening with Atlético holding their nerve and pipping Madrid rivals Real to win Spanish football’s grandest prize.

Heading into this final matchday Atlético Madrid, so often in Real’s shadow, held the cards. Diego Simeone’s men, who led 28 of the previous 37 weeks, boasted a slender two-point advantage over Los Blancos meaning a simple win at Real Valladolid would ensure the club’s 11th league success and second under their impassioned Argentine coach.

All Real Madrid could do is win their home game against Europa League finalists Villarreal (which they did) and hope last day nerves got the better of Los Rojiblancos with that championship within touching distance. It nearly happened but this Atleti side is made of sterner stuff, especially with Luis Suárez leading their forward line. On a rollercoaster day where both teams experienced all sorts of emotions, there were naturally winners and losers.

Winner: Diego Simeone

He’s already the club’s most-decorated manager so another feat in a stellar career would do nothing to enhance Simeone’s legacy and standing among Atleti’s fanbase. When the inevitable day comes, Simeone will leave as Atletico’s very own Sir Alex Ferguson, someone who transformed his club beyond all recognition and consequently making the job a poisoned chalice.

A second championship in an era where Barcelona and Real Madrid call all the shots is nothing short of remarkable. Under Simeone, Atletico have consistently punched above their weight, subsequently going from a club looking from the outside to dining at Europe’s top table.

In the two seasons before Simeone’s appointment they finished ninth and seventh. Across nine full seasons with the Argentine in charge, they’ve never finished outside the top three. This season everything seemingly fell into their laps; the togetherness shown (they interestingly become the first La Liga winners since 1978/79 to end a campaign without having a single player sent off) has ultimately made the difference.

A second title puts El Cholo alongside Ricardo Zamora (1939/40 and 1940/41) and compatriot Helenio Herrera (1949/50 and 1950/51) as Atlético coaches to have won two La Liga titles (2013/14 and 2020/21). Not bad company.

Loser: Karim Benzema

A minute can be a long time in football and both protagonists of this story experienced that firsthand today. Karim Benzema, who earlier in the week returned from international exile, felt he equalised for Real, after Yeremi Pino put the visitors ahead in the 20th minute, but the video assistant referee had other ideas. The nominally lethal French marksman was adjudged to have been in an offside position.

Cue understandable frustration, but that agony turned into despair when mere seconds later Ángel Correa equalised for the Atletico, subsequently cancelling out Óscar Plano’s surprise opener. It was a goal laced with individual brilliance. Atleti’s ‘number 10’ danced between two opposition players before striking a futsal-esque toe punt finish past a slow thinking Jordi Masip in the Valladolid goal.

Meanwhile, back in the nation’s capital, Benzema was given a great opportunity to draw level but despite having the goal gaping he could only drag his shot wide. He did ultimately get his goal before assisting Luka Modric’s winner but unfortunately even in victory there must be a loser. Benzema finishes one goal shy of equalling his best goalscoring record in a single La Liga campaign (24 in 2015/16).

Furthermore, once José Luis Munuera Montero blew his whistle at full-time a painful realisation sunk in. For the first time since 2009/10, Real finished a season empty-handed. An inquest will surely follow and even before today’s game the feeling was Zinedine Zidane that will step down for the second time as Real boss. His former teammate Raúl, currently the manager of Real Madrid Castilla, and ex-Juventus head coach Massimiliano Allegri are being tipped as his eventual successor.

Winner: Luis Suarez

Cometh the hour, cometh the man. It was befitting that Luis Suárez sealed this championship for Atlético considering everything he’s done following his acquisition from Barcelona last summer. There’s no such thing as a lost cause with Suarez involved. He continually remained alert which ultimately paid dividends when a wayward Sergi Guardiola’s back pass fell into his path.

Once racing through on goal no one was going to stop El Pistolero who calmly registered goal number 21 of the season. An elite ‘number nine’ — cut from the same cloth as Robert Lewandowski — his goals have won Atlético 21 points, more than any player in Spain’s top division this season. He’s also now won the league in five of his seven seasons in Spain. A year ago many questioned whether he still got it. On the evidence of these past few months he seemingly never lost it.

Loser: Barcelona

“Barça didn’t value me and Atlético opened their doors for me. I will always be grateful to this club for trusting in me,” an emotional Suárez commented after the game. This redemption arc will hurt but it’s a timely reminder that sometimes a change of scenery is needed. Simeone’s presence and man-management style has undoubtedly reinvigorated the Uruguayan centre-forward, but for supporters of the Catalan giants seeing him succeed and where their club is at must sting.

Once Barcelona’s league campaign post-mortem gets underway, the last few weeks will be scrutinised like nobody’s business. They ended matchday 29 sitting a point behind leaders Atlético with Real, who they were set to meet in the following round, a further two behind. Since then it’s been one disappointing result after another. Back-to-back wins after the Clásico loss couldn’t get the Catalan giants back on track.

In the five games before final day Barça could only manage to accumulate five points from 15 available which, not only ended their championship dreams, but made Koeman’s position untenable. There’s also the elephant in the room: Lionel Messi, whose contract expires next month, hasn’t penned a new deal. To lose a once in a generation player of this magnitude, especially how often he’s single-handedly bailed them out, would be a stiff punch in the gut.