BARCELONA (Reuters) - Atletico Madrid ended the decade-long dominance of Spanish giants Barcelona and Real Madrid by clinching a first La Liga title for 18 years in a thrilling climax to the campaign on Saturday.
A towering Diego Godin header secured Atletico a 1-1 draw against Barcelona that kept them three points clear of the Catalans in second, sparking wild celebrations among the visiting players and fans.
Barca needed to beat Atletico in the final-day showdown to snatch the title away and Alexis Sanchez gave the hosts hope when he rifled home from an acute angle after 33 minutes at a packed Nou Camp.
But four minutes after the break Godin powered home from a corner and Atletico defended robustly to earn the draw they needed and claim their first championship since 1995-96.
The result prompted Barcelona’s Argentine coach Gerardo Martino to announce his resignation after just one season in the job.
“The work and effort of this team is the key and nobody makes any compromises. The team understands this,” Atletico coach Diego Simeone told a news conference.
“Today will be one of the most important days in the history of the club. To become champions against Barcelona is a great feeling.”
Following the final whistle, the Nou Camp crowd applauded the new champions as they celebrated on the pitch.
“This was something unimaginable at the start of the season but totally deserved,” Atletico captain Gabi told Spanish television as his delirious team mates celebrated on the pitch behind him.
“We always believed in ourselves, even when we fell behind today,” he added.
”It is an honor to be part of this and to be able to compete with the big clubs.
“Let the fans enjoy this now because they deserve it. We will celebrate this great title now and from Monday we will focus on the Champions League which is the priority now.”
Atletico, who contest next Saturday’s European showpiece against Real Madrid in Lisbon, finished with 90 points, with Barca second on 87 and Real, also with 87, in third.
It is the first time in 10 years that either Barca or Real Madrid did not win the league and Barca finished without major silverware for the first time in six years.
“We had it within our grasp for 45 minutes but all we can do now is congratulate Atleti,” Barca playmaker Andres Iniesta told Spanish TV.
“After we went ahead their goal really hurt us and they are worthy champions,” added the Spain international.
“We tried to the very end but today we are left empty-handed. This season is over for us and now we just have to move forward.”
Gerard Pique and Neymar were back in the Barca side after injury while the surprise in coach Martino’s lineup was the choice of Cesc Fabregas in midfield ahead of Xavi.
Pique’s return was a boost due to Atletico’s strength in the air and he was soon in the thick of the action as the visitors looked to test the Barca defense. He was booked after just five minutes for a foul on Koke.
The visitors suffered a blow as Diego Costa went off injured after 15 minutes as his hamstring problems continued. Shortly afterwards Arda Turan also limped off.
Needing only to draw, Atletico tried to slow the game down, while the tension meant a scrappy contest only came to life in spurts.
Sanchez was looking the most lively for Barca in the first half and having gone close with a header, he rifled home a shot from a tight angle, beating Thibaut Courtois at his near post.
It would be harsh to blame the Atletico keeper, however, such was the ferocity of the strike.
Atletico came out in determined mood after the restart and once Godin got the equalizer from a Gabi corner they always looked in control.
Messi made some dangerous runs and found the net with an effort that was ruled offside, while Neymar, the marquee signing ahead of the season, also failed to make an impact with the Atletico defense staying rock solid.
After months of speculation about his future, Barcelona coach Martino said he was standing down in the wake of the result.
“I would like to thank the club for putting their confidence in me and I am sorry that I was unable to deliver,” the Argentine told a news conference.
Former Barca player Luis Enrique is favorite to replace Martino and oversaw his final game as Celta Vigo coach in a 2-1 defeat by Valencia.
He had already announced he would be leaving at the end of the season, but his hopes of going out with a win were dashed as Sofiane Feghouli and Pablo Piatti struck for Valencia after Inigo Lopez gave Celta the lead.
“We did our best but it didn’t happen as we lacked our normal level,” Celta forward Nolito told reporters.
Celta, whose objective at the start of the season was to avoid relegation, finished the campaign in ninth on 49 points.
“All the same it has been a good season for us and we would have happily signed at the start to have finished in this position. We have suffered a lot along the way though and lost here to a good team,” Nolito added.
Additional reporting by Iain Rogers,; editing by Justin Palmer and Toby Davis