Thursday, 22 May 2014

Atléti and La Liga provide a beautiful conclusion

For those of much more used to a diet of English Premier League, last Saturday's winner-takes-all contest in La Liga provided a stunning, absorbing, highly-satisfying bookend to the season of domestic league action in Europe.

Along with other Australian aficionados, I was faced with an interesting choice of late night /early morning viewing - the FA Cup final between Arsenal and Hull City, or 2nd vs 1st in Spain.  While the former probably exceeded its billing and provided a more drawn-out and closer contest than most pundits predicted, I was so glad I chose the latter.

The La Liga fixture computer had provided the most dramatic of final round contests.  Barcelona would host Atlético Madrid, with the visitors in pole position, but needing at least a draw to win the title. A home win would reap the title for Barcelona.

Some context.  For the previous nine seasons the title had been shared between the two superpowers of Spanish football, Barcelona and Real Madrid, and in only one of those seasons had another team finished runner-up. Atlético, forever in the shadow of its royal city rival, had not won the title since 1996. More than this, Atlético faced into the 2013-2014 season with a financial disadvantage routinely seen across Europe's leagues.  The eleven who started this game in Atlético's away yellow had cost under €40m, less than the individual value of most in Barcelona's team.  In EPL terms, this was Aston Villa attempting to trump Man City and Chelsea for the title.

The stage was set brilliantly at Barcelona's Nou Camp, with sunshine dousing the 100,000 crowd, of which only 500 seats had been made available for the visiting fans.  A mass display from the 100,000 (less the 500) provided a foreboding entree for the visiting team.  We cut to the sight of the nervous Atlético players waiting in the tunnel.  Eventually they were joined by their opposite number from Barca, and we were treated to the sight of genuine, affectionate embraces between the opponents - extraordinary given the momentous occasion, and that shortly they were to engage so vigorously and physically on the field of battle, and a contrast with the sullen, uber stoicism seen in EPL tunnels from a Gerrard or a Terry.

Come kickoff and quickly the viewing audience was immersed in a superb contest.  Barcelona, certainly not at their best, showing great nerves, but buoyed by the mass home support, and having the lion's share of possession. Atlético, soaking up great pressure, skilled and dangerous on the break, and with no small measure of confidence drawn from the previous 37 games of out-performance.

Then the drama.  Within a few first-half minutes, Atlético had lost both top scorer Costa and Turan to injury.  Perhaps Barca smelled blood, but whatever it was, Sánchez conjured up a freakish goal out of nothing for the home team.  Half time and the title was heading back to Barcelona, and a 5th title in 6 years. The alluring Atlético coach Diego Simeone was seen gently shaking his head, wondering how fate was conspiring against him and his team.

Come the second half, and it was Atlético who bounced out of the blocks, dominating possession and after twice going close, finding the precious equaliser. Inspired by their rally, and with the holy grail now within reach, the red and whites (in their away yellow) foiled the desperate forays from the home team.  The tension was palpable, the home support increasingly fervent.

The climax. The final whistle.  Scenes of utter jubilation from the Atlético players and the small dot of away supporters on the Nou Camp canvas.  And then, perhaps the most extraordinary sight of the afternoon, with great swathes of the Barcelona home support breaking into spontaneous warm and generous applause in recognition of the contest they had witnessed, and the visiting team's gallantry and massive achievement in dragging the title away from the big two.  Atléti's proud coach Simeone joined in the celebrations, and then briefly, but beautifully, returned to his dugout as the television cameras caught him in a quiet moment of proud reflection on the enormity of what he and his team had just accomplished.

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