The flags above the stadium had been arranged in order of the league table going into the last game of the season – Atlético Madrid first, Barcelona second. After the final 90 minutes of football they did not need changing.
Atlético Madrid came back from a nightmare first half in which they lost two of their most influential attacking players and then the lead only to equalize in the second half and win the point that gave them their first title for 18 years.
It was always going to take something special to beat their Chelsea loanee keeper Thibaut Courtios and it came when on 34 minutes Alexis Sánchez’s rocket shot found the Belgian keeper’s top corner after Leo Messi had chested down Cesc Fabregas’ long ball forward. It looked like being the goal that would decide the league.
It was not a typical Barcelona goal and this has not been a typical Barcelona season. Their fast passing football has deserted them and they started this game with the old midfield master of ceremonies Xavi on the bench, but somehow they were now back on top of the pile.
There had been around 2,000 of their supporters outside of the team hotel two hours before kick-off and as the team coach made the half-mile crawl to the stadium their fans lined both sides of the road to cheer their team towards the gates of the Nou Camp. But no amount of last-day euphoria would be able to breath enough life back into their title charge. Even taking the lead would not be enough.
The tone had been set by coach Tata Martino’s pre-match comments when he said that he would gladly swap places with Atlético, preferring to need an away point to a home win. Surely emphasizing Barça’s home record over the course of the season – only four points dropped – would have been a better message to send out.
Atlético Madrid coach Diego Simeone’s message had been that leagues were ‘won’ not ‘deserved’. He wanted no sob-stories on the final day and his players made sure there were none despite that awful first half.
It was on 18 minutes when Koke broke through the middle and looked to play the ball wide left to Diego Costa but the Brazilian Spain international stopped his run and instead went to ground holding the back of his right thigh.
He hobbled off to be replaced by Adrián and looked disconsolate on the bench – like a man who knows next week’s European Cup final might come too soon for him.
Moments later the visitor’s problems doubled when Arda Turan pulled up and was replaced by Raul Garcia. The Turkish international joined Costa on the bench.
Atlético were still feeling they had weathered the early storm, which had seemed more like a light shower with none of the early passion outside the ground having translated to the Barcelona players.
Adriano had given Courtois a routine save to make and Pedro had headed Alves’ cross over with the only two chances of the first half an hour.
Even when the Chilean winger Sánchez put the home side ahead instead of firing Barcelona up for a second half performance that would seal the title they allowed Atlético back in almost immediately.
First David Villa hit the post and then Diego Godin powered a header past Jose Pinto from Koke’s corner to put Atlético Madrid level. Barcelona’s old Achilles heel had come back to haunt them – they cannot defend well-executed corners.
With the introduction of Neymar Barcelona suddenly seemed twice as dangerous. He had one foot in Brazil’s pre-World Cup training camp last week until recalled when it seemed possible that the league could still be won.
Messi had the ball in the net only for an off-side flag to be raised. A title-winning goal from Messi would have gone a long way to repay that new £16.3m contract but it would have been a false reflection on a disappointing season from him.
Atlético Madrid coach Diego Simeone subbed the sub with 20 minutes left taking off Adrian who had replaced Costa in the first half. He has done it his way throughout the campaign and he has led his team to the title as coach, just as he did as a player 18 years ago.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Pinto; Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Adriano; Fabregas (Xavi, 77), Busquets (Song, 57), Iniesta; Alexis, Messi, Pedro (Neymar, 62).
Atletico Madrid (4-4-2): Courtois; Juanfran, Miranda, Godin, Luis; Turan (Garcia, 32), Gabi, Tiago, Koke; Villa, Costa (Lopes, 16).
Referee: Antonio Lahoz
Ronaldo in injury scare
Cristiano Ronaldo, who wanted to prove his fitness after a hamstring injury, limped off in the warm-up before Real Madrid's La Liga match against Espanyol. But manager Carlo Ancelotti said his withdrawal was a precaution with the Champions League final against city rivals Atletico coming up on Saturday.
“He didn't feel comfortable and we decided to take him out to avoid any risk,” Ancelotti said. Gareth Bale scored as Real beat Espanyol 3-1.