MADRID (AP) — When the final whistle blew, Diego Simeone broke out into a broad smile, laughed and breathed a sigh of relief. A few moments later, Luis Suárez was sitting on the field weeping profusely while on a video call.
After a seven-year wait — and a dramatic final round — Atlético Madrid had won the Spanish league title. Fans and players later celebrated together outside the stadium in Valladolid, with more supporters rejoicing back in Madrid.
Atlético outlasted second-place Real Madrid after coming from behind to defeat Valladolid 2-1 on Saturday and finish two points ahead of its city rival after almost losing a lead that it had held since the ninth round.
Suárez, who was let go by Barcelona against his wishes last season, scored the winner for Atlético which won its first league title since 2014 in a wild finish that had plenty of twists with the two remaining title contenders playing at the same time.
Madrid couldn’t repeat as champion despite rallying to defeat Villarreal 2-1 at home and giving Atlético a very late scare. A win for Madrid and draw for Atlético would have kept the title with Madrid on the head-to-head tiebreaker.
Suárez’s goal came as redemption in what he called his “toughest year.” He was key for Atlético throughout the season after practically being handed to the team by Barcelona.
The Uruguay striker was deeply moved after the match and broke down while apparently talking to his family on the phone.
“This has been a hard season for the situation I had to go through, starting the season the way it did, being disrespected (by Barcelona) and having Atlético open its doors to me,” Suárez said. “I will always be thankful to this great club for that.”
The results left Atlético top at the end of the 38-round season, giving Simeone’s team its second league title in 25 years. Atlético’s previous league title before 2014 was in 1996, when Simeone still played for the club.
As players chanted and celebrated on the field, several hundred Atlético fans held their own celebrations outside the José Zorrilla Stadium in Valladolid. Some players later joined them on their way to the team bus, sharing hugs and chanting together, many without masks despite the coronavirus. Police had to intervene to keep some of the fans away. The trophy will be presented to the club on Monday.
Atlético’s 11th league title ended a seven-year dominance by Barcelona and Madrid in Spain. Since 2014, Barcelona had won the league four times and Madrid twice, including last season.
“It has been such a difficult year, with so many people dying,” said Simeone, who won a record eighth title with the club since arriving as coach in 2011. “For Atlético to win the title this season, it’s different. It was a difficult year, just like our own history. This was one of the best years for Atlético to be the champion.”
After embracing his family, Simeone jumped on the team bus as his players were celebrating and singing “We Are the Champions.”
Real Madrid was trying to win back-to-back league trophies for the first time since 2007-08. It finished the season without any title for the first time in a decade.
“We did what we needed to do, and they did what they had to do too,” said Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane, whose future at the club remains uncertain. “We have to congratulate Atlético. I believe the team that wins the league deserves it. My players gave it their all until the last minute, so I have no reproaches for my team.”
Barcelona was out of contention entering the final round and closed its season with a 1-0 win at last-place Eibar without Lionel Messi, who was allowed to start his vacation early. The Catalan club secured third place after Antoine Griezmann scored an 81st-minute winner.
Atlético led the league since the ninth round but had struggled near the end and allowed Barcelona and Madrid to get back in the title race. Both Madrid and Barcelona squandered chances to move to the top in the final weeks.
Atlético risked losing the lead on Saturday after Valladolid jumped ahead with a goal by Óscar Plano in the 18th minute, but Ángel Correa equalized in the 57th and Suárez sealed the win in the 67th for his 21st league goal with Atlético.
Like last weekend, when Atlético needed two late goals to beat Osasuna and stay in the lead, things changed quickly at the top in a tense round.
A win by Atlético would clinch the title no matter what but it went down a goal early to open the door for a Madrid comeback.
At the Alfredo Di Stéfano Stadium, Madrid captain Sergio Ramos, who was with the substitutes, tried to alert his teammates that Atlético was losing, but it took only a few seconds before Madrid also conceded. Villarreal’s opener by Yéremi Pino came two minutes after Valladolid’s goal against Atlético.
In Valladolid, Simeone was down on a knee, shaking his head. He raised his arm and looked back to his bench, apparently searching for answers as his team appeared nervous and continued to struggle.
Madrid thought it had equalized against Villarreal with a header by Karim Benzema in the 55th, but video review determined he was offside. The play was still under review at the Di Stéfano when Atlético took the lead in Valladolid two minutes later.
Correa scored after dribbling past two opponents outside the area and finding the net with a low shot between the legs of a defender.
Atlético started breathing a sigh of relief 10 minutes later as Suárez scored the go-ahead goal in a breakaway, calmly sending a shot into the net in a one-on-one situation with Valladolid goalkeeper Jordi Masip.
Atlético wasn’t safe yet, though, as Madrid rallied with Benzema scoring in the 87th and Luka Modric striking in stoppage time to give the defending champions a chance.
There were only a few minutes left in Valladolid, though, and Atlético held on for the victory and the title.
Real Sociedad secured fifth place and a Europa League spot with a 1-0 win at Osasuna.
Sixth-place Real Betis won 3-2 at Celta Vigo and also guaranteed a spot in European competitions.
Seventh-place Villarreal will play in Wednesday’s Europa League final against Manchester United and can secure a spot in the Champions League with a victory.
Valladolid and Huesca joined Eibar as the three relegated teams for next season. Eibar had already been demoted last weekend.
Elche escaped on Saturday after beating Athletic Bilbao 2-0 at home. Huesca drew 0-0 against Valencia, also at home.
Valladolid, owned by former Brazil great Ronaldo, played two straight seasons in the first division after the Brazilian took over.
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Associated Press writer Joseph Wilson contributed to this report from Barcelona, Spain.