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No time to bask in glory as Madrid rivals await

Atletico Madrid midfielder Juanfran, left, embraces team-mate Filipe Luis after clinching the La Liga title. Picture:AFP/Getty

Atletico Madrid midfielder Juanfran, left, embraces team-mate Filipe Luis after clinching the La Liga title. Picture:AFP/Getty

  • by MASSIMO MARZOCCHI
 

Atletico Madrid have little time to celebrate their stunning La Liga triumph and must immediately turn their focus on Saturday’s Champions League final against city rivals Real Madrid.

Atletico sealed their first La Liga title in 18 years thanks to a 1-1 draw at ­Barcelona on Saturday and now have a chance to win a first continental crown and deny their wealthy neighbours a record-extending tenth.

“Without a doubt today we were able to make history,” said coach Diego Simeone, who has transformed the club into genuine contenders in Spain and Europe since taking over at the end of 2011. “But we have to play on Saturday and we have to prepare ourselves for Saturday,” added the former Argentina captain, who was in the Atletico team the last time they won La Liga in 1996.

The European showpiece in Lisbon is the first between two teams from the same city in the 59-year history of ­Europe’s elite club competition.

It will be Real’s 13th appearance in the final and the first since they won their ninth crown in 2002, while Atletico have only made the final once before, losing to Bayern Munich in 1974 after a replay.

“It is an honour to be part of this team and be able to compete with the big clubs,” said captain Gabi. “Now of course we will celebrate and then from Monday we will focus on the Champions League.”

Saturday’s La Liga showdown at the Nou Camp, when Atletico came from behind to secure the point they needed to clinch the title, did not come without a cost, however.

Top scorer Diego Costa and playmaker Arda Turan, key performers this season, were forced off in the first half with hamstring and hip injuries respectively.

The club did not say how long they might be sidelined but local media said Costa was a serious doubt for the ­Champions League final, while Arda was expected to be able to play.

Brazil-born Costa, who netted 27 goals in La Liga last term and has eight in this season’s Champions League, is in the preliminary Spain squad for the World Cup finals and is expected to be included in the holders’ final list for the tournament in Brazil starting next month.

Barcelona will now focus on a sweeping rebuilding effort after they ended the season without major silverware for the first time in six years and coach ­Gerardo Martino quit. Barca needed to beat leaders Atletico at home in their final game on Saturday to secure a fifth La Liga title in six years but could only manage a 1-1 draw at the Nou Camp and finished three points adrift of the ­Madrid club.

Atletico knocked them out in the quarter-finals of the Champions League and they lost to Real Madrid in the final of the King’s Cup, a disappointing ­return for the world’s second-richest club by income that prompted ­Martino’s resignation midway through a two-year contract.

“We have not achieved our objectives and we cannot be satisfied,” president Josep Bartomeu said in an interview with Spanish television broadcaster TV3. “We will go into a period with profound changes,” he added. “There are some players that will not continue but our philosophy won’t change.

“There are some things that have been decided, we will announce them in the following days. We will continue with our concept of football.”

With Martino gone, the way is clear for Barca to appoint Luis Enrique, who stepped down last week after a successful season coaching Celta Vigo, as the Argentine’s replacement. A former Barca and Spain midfielder, Luis Enrique was filmed last week by Spanish TV at his home meeting with sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta and is widely expected to be named soon.

Luis Enrique took over from Pep Guardiola as coach of Barca’s B team in 2008 before a brief and troubled stint at Serie A club AS Roma.

Celta hired him to replace Abel ­Resino in June last year and the Galician club have impressed under the 44-year-old, playing some of the most attractive football in Spain. He is seen as a Barca insider who will remain true to the club’s possession-based style with its focus on relentless attack.

His first task would be to ensure the squad, which has looked limited at times this season, is strengthened in the right areas. Among urgently needed reinforcements are a goalkeeper to replace Victor Valdes, at least one centre-back and possibly a tall centre forward who can cause problems to opposition defences at crosses and attacking se- pieces. “A cycle has ended and the reality is that we have to make changes,” centre-back Javier Mascherano, one of several players who may move on, told Barca’s TV channel. “The club will make decisions and will create a competitive team,” added the Argentine, who previously played in midfield.

“A unique era is over. That’s why it hurts so much because you never want a good thing to end. I don’t know what I’ll do. I’m very grateful to the club and I’ll leave the day they don’t want me.

“At this point I don’t want to talk about my future. The most important thing right now is Barca and our defeat.”

Another important task for Martino’s successor will be to ensure four-times World Player of the Year Lionel Messi gets back to his brilliant best. Messi, who missed two months of the season with a muscle injury, looked strangely subdued in Saturday’s La Liga showdown against Atletico and only showed glimpses of his scintillating ­talent from last term.

The Argentine has agreed a ­lucrative new contract with the club that will reportedly make him the world’s best-paid player and Barca will need him to perform next season if they are to regain their dominance in Spain and Europe.

 

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