Diego Godin’s headed equalizer at the Camp Nou nearly three years ago dramatically altered the landscape of Spanish soccer.
A 1-1 draw against Barcelona was enough for Atletico Madrid to claim their first league title in 18 years, completing what was the greatest footballing upset witnessed in a generation. Keep in mind this was when the suggestion that Leicester City could ever win the Premier League would have been met with incredulity.
Atletico Madrid’s title victory mattered so much because it was a symbolic breaking of La Liga’s monopoly. It had been a decade since a team other than Barcelona or Real Madrid had won the championship, with Rafael Benitez’s Valencia the last outsider to finish atop the Spanish table.
But while Leicester City’s title triumph last season was treated as a glorious fluke, Atletico Madrid’s success marked a fundamental shift in the plates of Spanish soccer. Diego Simeone has turned the Vicente Calderon side into the country’s third footballing force, maintaining Atleti as challengers both domestically and continentally, where they have reached two Champions League finals in the past three years.
They set a precedent which has since been followed by the rest of La Liga. While Barcelona and Real Madrid once had free reign of the Spanish game, thrashing opposition sides at will, now the country’s top flight is arguably the most competitive in Europe. There is undeniable strength from top to bottom.
Look at how Barcelona lost to Deportivo La Coruna at the weekend to knock them from top spot. Before that Luis Enrique’s side had won five straight games, but that run of form somewhat masks that for two of those matches, late Lionel Messi winners were required (including one against Leganes at home).
Even Real Madrid, who established a Spanish-record unbeaten run earlier in the season, have been troubled of late, losing to Celta Vigo, Sevilla and Valencia, as well as drawing against Celta Vigo and Las Palmas since the turn of the year. Meanwhile, both teams march on in the Champions League, underlining that the domestic competition has caught up rather than either Barca or Real suffering any great drop in quality.
Atletico Madrid, however, have dropped their level somewhat this season, with the outsider mantel taken up by Sevilla. Jorge Sampaoli’s side might have crashed out of the Champions League this week, but they remain in the title race at the top of La Liga, sitting just five points adrift of pace-setters Real Madrid.
This weekend could prove to be something of a turning point in the battle to finish the season as Spain’s third force, with Atletico Madrid hosting Sevilla for the final time at the Vicente Calderon before the move to their new stadium on the outskirts of the city in time for the start of the 2017-18 season.
The idea is that by leaving their spiritual home and moving into the new 60,000-capacity Wanda Metropolitano, Atleti will be able to compete on an equal footing with the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid. Before then, however, Simeone’s side have a fight on their hands to secure Champions League qualification, with Villarreal and Real Sociedad pushing them hard for a top four place.
Sevilla have lost momentum in recent weeks, but they will put up a stiff test for Atletico. Sampaoli’s side are emblematic of how the rest of Spanish soccer has raised their standard to compete with Barcelona and Real Madrid, taking the game to the opposition no matter who they are up against. They, along with the rest of La Liga, are fearless and will most likely demonstrate that at the Vicente Calderon on Sunday.
There is intrigue throughout Spain’s top flight, illustrated by this week’s clash between Atletico Madrid and Sevilla. Neither team are likely to win the title this season, but La Liga has never been stronger for narrative. In fact, it’s never been stronger in general.