Offloaded by Barcelona, hurt Suarez delivers for Atletico
Luis Suarez was visibly emotional after netting the winner against Valladolid on the final day of the La Liga season on Saturday that sealed the title for Atletico Madrid.
The past year has been some ride for the former Ajax, Liverpool and Barcelona forward who has now won his fifth league title in Spain. Barca let go of him ahead of the season and Atletico were glad to snap up the Uruguayan forward in a cut-price €7million deal.
When he arrived in Madrid, Suarez was a few months from turning 34. Barcelona’s move was seen as one to help the club free up its wage bill. A player his age doesn’t command a high resale value, and some saw Suarez’s exit as necessary given Barca’s precarious financial position.
Such was Barcelona’s desperation to get rid of Suarez that, according to Spanish media reports, the Catalans agreed to pay Suarez almost half of his wages at Atletico for this season, which was to be the final year of his contract with Barcelona. According to Marca, Barcelona are paying Suarez €6 million, taking his total annual wages for the season up to €14 million, to ensure he doesn’t face a pay cut from the contract he had with the Catalan club.
Only the biggest winners from that move have turned out to be Atletico with the Uruguayan proving key to the club winning their first league title since 2014. Saturday’s victory that helped Atletico pip city rivals Real Madrid to the title was vindication for Suarez and Atletico Madrid.
“I had to live through a difficult situation, starting the season being under-appreciated and Atletico opened the door to give me the chance to show that I could still be a force,” Suarez told Spanish broadcaster Movistar after Saturday’s win. “That’s why I’m always going to be grateful to this great club for trusting me,” a tearful Suarez added.
“Many people have suffered with me, my wife, my children, every day,” he said. “I’ve been in football for so many years and I think this is the year they have endured the most.”
Suarez let football do the talking. His 21 goals, the fourth highest in the league, were crucial to Atletico’s triumph. Seven of them proved match-winning strikes, helping add 14 points to Atletico’s tally. Barca’s title challenge never really got going, and despite a revival in form in the second half of the campaign, fizzled out again in the final few weeks.
The vital cog
It is difficult to imagine Atletico winning their first league title since 2014 without the Uruguayan, who was the most critical piece in the Atletico machinery. A large share of the credit though goes to Diego Simeone, who is cementing his place as a modern day managerial great.
While Atletico have become a formidable force in Europe under Simeone, they have been unable to prevent some of their best players from being poached by richer clubs. In the summer of 2019, Atletico lost some of the most influential names in their squad.
Striker Antoine Griezmann moved to Barcelona, Rodri was picked up by Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City and Lucas Hernandez moved to Bayern Munich while the ageing defensive trio of Diego Godin, Juanfran and Felipe Luis left on free transfers.
Such an exodus would have weakened any team and Atletico did struggle at times in the 2019-20 season, finishing with their lowest points total in the league in eight years, with 70 points. Despite a season in transition, shrewd recruitment in the same transfer window ensured Atletico had laid a foundation for the coming seasons.
The signing of midfielder Marcos Llorente, unwanted at Real Madrid, in 2019, and that of defenders Mario Hermoso, Felipe, Renan Lodi and Kieran Trippier helped fill up the gap caused by exits. Most of these signings, as well as that of young Portuguese forward Joao Felix, are starting to look like prudent long-term investments.
Strong, large squad
Atletico thus had a squad strong and large enough to take advantage of the dips in form suffered by Real Madrid and Barcelona. Suarez’s arrival meant the team’s goal tally improved from last season’s 51 to 67 this time. Llorente’s 12 goals were crucial too, so was Angel Correa’s nine and Felix’s seven.
Most of the new names have melded in alongside seasoned players like Koke, Stefan Savic, Jose Gimenez, Saul Niguez, Correa and goalkeeper Jan Oblak. Yannick Carrasco, who returned to the club last year after a stint in China, was also crucial in this league campaign, chipping in with six goals and 10 assists.
They had a mixed record against their title rivals—win and draw against Barca and a draw and loss against Real Madrid—but Atletico were consistent for most of the campaign.
That this squad has been built without extravagant spending, with the exception of Felix being bought for €126 million, speaks volumes for the club’s scouting and recruitment policy. Atletico’s regular top-three finishes and two league titles in eight seasons are also proof that Simeone is much more than the reactive brand of football he is known for.
“In my loneliness before the match, I was remembering the time when we were bidding farewell to the (Vicente) Calderón (Stadium in 2017), and people were asking me if I was going to continue or not. I said yes, I was going to stay because I believed that the club had a future. And I wasn’t wrong. The club has a future,” the Argentine tactician told reporters on Saturday.
After almost a decade at the club, which has included a few major trophies and heartbreaks like two narrow Champions League final losses, Simeone is showing again that he hasn’t lost his magic touch.
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