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La Liga Season Review: Atlético Madrid Outran the Competition

The closest league title race in years went to Diego Simeone’s side. How will Barcelona and Real Madrid respond?

Getty Images/Ringer Illustration

The late, great Andrew Weatherall famously had a saying tattooed across both arms: “fail we may, sail we must.” And while a reference to one of underground music’s most beloved DJs might seem like an odd place to start a La Liga review, I thought of these words often this season, especially when it came to Atlético Madrid. League leaders by 11 points in late January, Atléti allowed Real Madrid, Barcelona, and even Sevilla to close the gap late in the season. At times, it was questionable whether Atléti or anyone else wanted to win the league at all.

After sailing through the first half of the season and almost failing in the stormy seas of the second, Atléti eventually secured the title—their first since 2014—on the season’s final day, ending one of the closest races in league history. “We’re Atlético,” said midfielder Koke after the championship-clinching 2-1 win at Valladolid, “if we do not suffer, we are not ourselves.” Win they may, suffer they must—it was all part of a wonderful season in Spain’s top flight.

Player of the Year: Lionel Messi, Barcelona

Much like Robert Lewandowski in the Bundesliga, it’s hard to look past Lionel Messi for this award. If you looked past him, there were many players in for a shout: Luis Suárez’s 21 goals won crucial points in Atleti’s title triumph, whereas Villareal’s Gerard Moreno and Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema finished behind Messi for the Pichichi with 23 goals each. Ten of Moreno’s goals came from the penalty spot, but his overall play and importance to a Villarreal side who had already qualified for next season’s Europa Conference League before winning this season’s Europa League—the first major trophy in club history and one which meant they will compete in the Champions League—put him in consideration for being La Liga’s best Spanish player. Marcos Llorente and Kieran Trippier were integral to Atleti’s title win, and Iago Aspas worked miracles again at his beloved Celta Vigo, but there’s no real choice but Messi.

Suárez’s departure, injuries to Ansu Fati and Philippe Coutinho, and Barcelona’s continuing failures in the transfer market left even more of the attacking and creative burden to Messi. However, the Argentine put his public dispute with the club behind him and dragged a Barcelona side that lost four of its opening 10 games under new boss Ronald Koeman into title contention late in the season. He dropped into deeper roles to link play even more than in previous years. And although it’s hardly a secret, Messi proved himself not only to be one of the greatest scorers of all time, but also one the greatest passers.

Manager of the Year: Diego Simeone

It may seem like an obvious choice, but La Liga had so many strong coaching displays this season. Julen Lopetegui guided Sevilla to a club-record point total, Imanol Alguacil led Real Sociedad—left without Martin Odegaard, whose loan spell ended early—to a fifth-place finish and their first Copa del Rey trophy since 1987. Manuel Pellegrini took Real Betis from 15th last season to sixth place and a Europa League spot, whereas Marcelino and Eduardo Coudet worked wonders after taking over at Athletic Bilbao and Celta Vigo, respectively, midseason. Unai Emery, meanwhile, is already a Villarreal legend for overseeing the club’s Europa League win and a seventh-place finish in the league.

But it has to be El Cholo, because, boy, did he suffer. It must be exhausting managing Atléti and it must be exhausting being Diego Simeone, who prowls the touchline with the chaotically balanced energy of a nuclear reactor, one missed breath away from unleashing Hulk-like rage (much like his assistant Nelson Vivas did during a match against Boca Juniors as Estudiantes head coach).

Even though this season’s Atléti side is built less in Simeone’s image than his earlier teams, it’s still a team with his personality imprinted on it. Atléti suffered because Simeone suffered. I’m sure if you asked any of the players, they would say it was worth it.

Game of the Year: Real Madrid 2, Sevilla 2

There are a few games that could have won this award: Levante and Barcelona’s six-goal thriller, and the best edition of El Clásico in a while, to name just two. Perhaps it’s recency bias, but the 2-2 draw between Real Madrid and Sevilla on Matchday 35 was hard to top.

After Atléti and Barça had played out a goalless draw the day before, a win for Real Madrid would have taken them top. A win for Sevilla, on the other hand, would have seen them pull within one point of Barcelona and Real Madrid and three points of Atléti. Despite having most of the chances, it took a 67th-minute equalizer from substitute Marco Asensio to pull Real Madrid level at 1-1.

Then came the drama. The referee didn’t notice Éder Militão’s handball in the Real Madrid box, and Real charged to the opposite end of the field where Benzema was brought down by Sevilla goalkeeper Yassine Bounou in the box. A penalty appeal for each team in one sequence of play, so to VAR it went. The referee stood at the replay monitor, surrounded by both sets of players and staff. It was a momentous call that could have decided the title. Eventually, he awarded the first penalty to Sevilla, the result of Militão’s handball, and Ivan Rakitic coolly scored from the penalty spot. Sevilla were moments from a gigantic 2-1 win, but Toni Kroos’s shot deflected off Eden Hazard’s ankle to salvage a point for Real Madrid, while maintaining the intrigue around who would win the title race.

Biggest Surprise: The Title Race Itself

The fact that Atléti raced out to an astounding 50 points in the first half of the season, and with the aforementioned struggles of Barcelona and Real Madrid, it’s a surprise that the title race was as close as it was. In recent years, tight title races usually consisted of Barcelona and Real Madrid, with a single point dropped by either enough to decide the title. Here’s to hoping that future title races make this year’s feel less abnormal.

Biggest Disappointment: Eibar’s Relegation

Eibar, from Gipuzkoa in the Basque Country and one of the smallest clubs ever to play in Spain’s top flight, were relegated after finishing bottom of the table, ending an improbable seven-season run in the first division. In 2014, they essentially had to crowdfund to ensure their survival, selling shares of the club to raise money to facilitate their promotion from the second tier. They finished in 18th their first season but avoided relegation because Elche was sent down instead for financial irregularities. Eibar has finished no lower than 14th, including a frankly unthinkable ninth-place finish in 2017-18. Last weekend, they posted a thread of personalized messages on Twitter thanking each club in the league and club president Amaia Gorostiza said in a press conference that the foundations of the club are stronger than they were eight years ago. “What we all want is to return to the First Division as quickly as possible and we are working on it,” she said. Many would echo her wishes for Eibar to return soon.

Biggest Question This Summer: Can Atléti Become a Genuine Force?

It’s an obvious but valid question. Atléti have a chance to solidify themselves as the team to beat. They continue to evolve—stylistically and in terms of their mentality—with emerging leaders in Mario Hermoso, Trippier, and Llorente, and João Félix has yet to reach his final form. What’s been so impressive about Atléti this season is that so many players have shared leadership responsibilities. Barcelona and Real Madrid’s financial constraints prevent them from responding as aggressively in the transfer market as they might have in 2014, when Atléti last won the title, meaning it’s all set up for Simeone’s side to become Spain’s dominant team.