Atleti fought; they clawed and scratched away; they did everything they were asked to do in order to extend Real Madrid's wait for their dream of La Decima and complete the incredible and improbable double—Champions League and La Liga, both in the span of a week.
Not Real Madrid. Not Barcelona. It was Los Rojiblancos just minutes away from the double.
The ultimate underdogs put themselves in the position they needed to be in heading down the stretch in Lisbon, Portugal, after Diego Godin's first-half header put them ahead 1-0. But it just barely wasn't enough to get through 90 minutes and change with the lead. Real Madrid finally found the goalscoring formula when Sergio Ramos equalized with a stoppage-time header.
Three extra-time goals later, La Decima had transformed from a disappearing mirage into reality. And Atletico Madrid had a 4-1 scoreline to represent a match that was oh so close to being the most monumental in the club's history and the golden cherry on top of a magnificent season.
What a shame it is that such a season ended in heartbreak.
Entering the 2013-14 campaign, the expectations were no doubt higher than usual for Los Rojiblancos. Fresh off a Copa del Rey title in 2013 and one year removed from a Europa League title, a third-place La Liga finish wasn't too much to ask—especially with Diego Costa evolving into a superstar.
But few, if any, expected this.
Winners of their first eight La Liga games, including a 1-0 win over Real at the Santiago Bernabeu, Atletico Madrid put the rest of the league on notice early. And they didn't fade throughout the season, threatening Barcelona and Real Madrid for the lead after virtually every matchday. Heading down the stretch, it was Atletico Madrid's title to lose.
Injuries and fatigue certainly took a toll, but with Costa (27 goals in La Liga) ineffective or out altogether in crucial late-season matches, Atletico's heart was tested time and time again.
And time and time again, including in last weekend's title-clinching draw at Barcelona and on Saturday in Lisbon, Diego Simeone's squad answered with a championship performance. In the final, it was just a few minutes too short.
Simeone implored the club's fans to look back on the successes they had, per the Champions League's official Twitter page:
Simeone: "Our fans should be proud of our excellent season and not waste a second being sad. I give my players 9 1/2 out of 10." #UCLfinal— Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) May 24, 2014
Matteo Bonetti of beIN Sports sees Atletico's success in 2013-14 as a springboard for other clubs:
Atletico Madrid gives plenty of hope to a team like Roma - who will impress PLENTY next season in the Champions League.— Matteo Bonetti (@TheCalcioGuy) May 24, 2014
For 80 minutes, Atletico Madrid were in control of their righteous neighbors. Cristiano Ronaldo was getting dominated, and any Los Blancos attack was thwarted by a daunting back four or stunning goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois. At times, Atleti even looked keen on pushing their lead to 2-0.
In the end, Real Madrid equalized. Gassed from an emotional and taxing few weeks, Simeone's men couldn't get their legs underneath them for 30 more minutes of a championship effort, and that left a revitalized Los Blancos squad with enough chances to make for a lopsided final score.
When Ramos hit the equalizing header and the match was sent to extra time, it was all but over. What energy Atletico hadn't spent late in their domestic title run was completely used up in the undying efforts to keep their opponents out of the net and win the Champions League.
Atletico Madrid have proven their worth as a championship club. First with a stunning victory over Real Madrid in last year's Copa del Rey final, and most impressively by holding off the two Spanish giants to win their first league title in nearly 20 years.
The simple fact that this club was able to beat the likes of Barcelona and Chelsea to make the European final is nothing short of astounding. Add on to that the reality that Atletico were a few minutes away from being Champions League winners, and it's simply indescribable.
Sure, a Champions League title would have been a jaw-dropping addition to the resume and more proof of their championship quality. Sure, losing in the final minutes to their most bitter and local rivals makes the pain even worse. Sure, the inevitable departure of Costa—and possibly even Koke—might triple that pain.
But looking back on Atletico Madrid's 2013-14 season, it just might have been the club's biggest in its history—regardless of Saturday's result.