- Associated Press - Monday, May 16, 2016

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) - With Barcelona celebrating yet another Spanish league title, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid are already looking forward to an even bigger prize.

After pushing Barcelona to the end in the Spanish league, the Madrid clubs quickly switched their focus to the Champions League final in two weeks in Milan.

One will return home as the European champion, the other will end the season without a title.

But no matter what happens in Italy, both teams will take solace by having finished the league with their heads up, taking the title fight to the final days and making Barcelona work hard for the trophy.

Real Madrid won its final 12 games to finish only one point behind Barcelona, while Atletico won seven of its last eight, finishing three points behind. They were denied the trophy by a late charge by Barcelona, which won five straight to secure its second consecutive title, and sixth in eight seasons.

Although neither Madrid team won the league, fans were more pleased than frustrated when it was all over this weekend. And it didn’t hurt as much to watch Barcelona celebrate knowing there’s still a chance to win soccer’s top club competition.

“We did what we had to do and we’re now thinking about our last remaining game,” Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane said. “Now it’s important to rest up, spend a few days with the family and forget about football. We’ll come back raring to go in preparation for the final.”

The European title would give Madrid a sensational ending to a season that appeared to be lost not long ago.

Before its impressive final run in the Spanish league, Madrid season’s had been marked by a demoralizing 4-0 home loss to Barcelona, a result that left “Los Blancos” in crisis and led to the eventual firing of coach Rafa Benitez. There was also the embarrassing disqualification from the Copa del Rey for using an ineligible player, and a signing ban handed down by FIFA for breaching rules registering players under the age of 18.

At one point in the league, Madrid trailed Barcelona by 12 points and many fans had given up hope of a comeback. In the Champions League, a shocking 2-0 loss at Wolfsburg put the team on the brink of elimination in the quarterfinals, and only a hat trick from Cristiano Ronaldo saved the team from an embarrassing early elimination.

Finishing the league on a high helped boost the team’s confidence ahead of the final in Milan.

“Our aim was to put the pressure on and we’ve done that. It’s great for us in terms of morale heading into the Champions League final,” Madrid defender Sergio Ramos said. “We had hope, which is the last thing you want to lose. Now we have a beautiful Champions League final that we want to win to make it an unforgettable year.”

The result of the final should help determine how successful Madrid’s season will actually be.

“I don’t think that it has been a bad season,” Madrid defender Dani Carvajal said. “Right now, I would give a positive assessment, but on the 28th we’ll be able to judge whether the season has been a good or bad one.”

Atletico will be hoping to avenge the hurtful result from two years ago, when it lost to Madrid in extra time despite leading until the final minutes of regulation.

Regardless of the result in Milan, Atletico again showed its worth this season both against Spanish rivals and top European clubs.

Atletico eliminated Barcelona and Bayern Munich on its way to the Champions League final, and was the team that challenged Barcelona the most in the Spanish league, staying in second place from early in the season until a disappointing late loss to last-place Levante last weekend.

“The reason Barcelona struggled was because we were right there to be able to fight until the end,” Atletico coach Diego Simeone said. “It makes us happy to be fighting with the best in the world.”

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Tales Azzoni on Twitter: https://twitter.com/tazzoni. His work can be found at https://bigstory.ap.org/content/tales-azzoni


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