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Soccer

Atlético Madrid Won La Liga The Hard Way

Atletico Madrid's players celebrate after winning the Spanish league football match against Real Valladolid FC and the Liga Championship title at the Jose Zorilla stadium in Valladolid on May 22, 2021.
Cesar Manso/AFP via Getty Images

In retrospect, it was always going to be this difficult for Atlético Madrid.

The second club of the Spanish capital has a history of suffering, particularly compared to its local rivals Real Madrid and the Catalan giants of Barcelona. Prior to Sunday, Los Colchoneros had won 10 La Liga titles in its history; nine of those were won on the final day of the season, and the other was won on the penultimate day away at Real Madrid’s Bernabeu fortress. Atlético loves drama and, despite having a huge lead earlier in the season, the club floundered at precisely the wrong time, but it never allowed itself to lose control over its own destiny. A 2-1 win away to relegation-bound Real Valladolid seemed like business taken care of, but this is Atlético: It wasn’t that easy to clinch the 11th title.

Given how manic this season of La Liga has been, with the top three clubs all in the hunt for the title until Barcelona’s collapse at Celta Vigo last week, it was almost predictable that both Madrids would fall behind early in their respective games. Atlético was the first to get stung, as Óscar Plano scored for Valladolid in the 18th minute on a counter-attack, giving Real real hope that it could steal the title. (Real needed Atlético to not win and then win its own game; Atlético just needed to win.) That hope lasted two minutes, as Villareal’s Yeremi Pino tallied one of his own just two minutes later to put Zinedine Zidane’s men in the same situation as Diego Simeone’s: two goals, or La Liga would most likely slip away.

Both sides went into halftime still trailing, which was the best result for a neutral fan but a nauseating one for both sides of Madrid. It would be Atlético, so often ahead of the pack this season, that would once again get back in the driver’s seat. Ángel Correa hit first, dribbling past a handful of Valladolid defenders and slotting home a low, long-range effort to equalize in the 57th minute. There are worse ways to score the second-biggest goal of the season.

As for the biggest goal of Atlético’s season, it could only be one man who scored it. Though he wasn’t really the club’s best player this season—that was probably Marcos Llorente, or even Spurs cast-out Kieran Trippier—Luis Suárez is the story that made this happen. Discarded by Barcelona due to his high wages, then sent over for free to a league rival, the 34-year-old Uruguayan scored 21 league goals, including an 88th-minute winner last week that kept Atlético in the league lead. That would have been an iconic moment in an iconic season for the old man, but he one-upped himself in the 67th minute against Valladolid, scoring what would become the league-winning tally for his new side:

There is probably not a more frustrating team in Europe to play against when all it needs to do is defend a lead, as Valladolid found out in the remaining 23 minutes and change. If you asked Simeone if he felt confident that his team, a team that had the best defense in La Liga once again, would be able to hang on … he’d probably curse you out in the affirmative. It never got particularly dicey, though Real’s own comeback, with goals from Karim Benzema and Luka Modrić in the final three minutes and stoppage time, surely ratcheted up the blood pressure.

In the end, though, Atlético did what it had to do. It shook off a horrific run of form that allowed Barcelona and Real back into the race when it should have been a walk, and it fought back after falling behind on the last day with another choke job on the near horizon. Atlético deserved this title, and it earned it in the most Atlético way possible—by the skin of its teeth, and right at the finish line.