By Iain Rogers
MADRID, May 17 (Reuters) - If anyone had suggested before the start of the La Liga season that Atletico Madrid could pip vastly wealthier rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid to the title they would have been dismissed as hopelessly naive.
Predicting that Diego Simeone's side, who wrapped up their 10th domestic league title and their first since 1996 thanks to Sunday's 1-1 comeback draw at Barca, would also be through to the final of Europe's elite club competition would have seen them laughed out of town.
Yet that is exactly what Atletico have achieved thanks to an inspirational coach and a group of talented and fiercely committed players who, due to the relative thinness of their squad, have toiled for more minutes and run more kilometres than any of their rivals.
Much of Atletico's recent success is down to the influence of Simeone, a combative midfielder who was in the Atletico team that won a La Liga and King's Cup double in 1996 and who took over a club grown used to mediocrity at the end of 2011.
Said to have played "with a knife between his teeth", the former Argentina captain has transformed Atletico, whose annual income is about a fifth of that of Barca and Real, into contenders both in Spain and among Europe's wider elite.
Prowling the touchline during matches, bellowing instructions and urging on his troops while whipping up the fans, his passion, desire for success and intensity clearly rubbed off on the players.
Proof of the coaching staff's commitment to the cause came in one recent Madrid derby when it literally took eight men to restrain Simeone's number two, another former Atletico player German Burgos, when he lost his temper with the referee.
Simeone has managed to wrest the very best from a number of players who had not performed to their full potential before, including top scorer Diego Costa, attacking midfielder Raul Garcia and playmaker Arda Turan.
But it is perhaps the tireless work of the defence and midfield that has contributed most to Atletico's consistency as they kept pace with Spain's big two despite the gruelling calendar and what many considered a limited squad.
Under Simeone's guidance, Atletico have conceded by far the fewest goals in La Liga with 26 in 38 matches and leaked only six in 12 outings on their way to the Champions League final in Lisbon on May 24.
Captain Gabi, an Atletico academy graduate who returned to the club in 2011 after four years at Real Zaragoza, has been a revelation as ball-winner and distributor-in-chief in central midfield, ably supported by Tiago and Mario Suarez.
Centre backs Diego Godin and Miranda have been rock solid, and have also scored important headed goals from set pieces including Godin's equaliser from a corner on Saturday, while fullbacks Juanfran and Filipe Luis have provided attacking width while ably fulfilling their defensive duties.
Time and again, goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois has pulled off seemingly impossible saves to deny Atletico's opponents and the on-loan Belgian international will surely be recalled to parent club Chelsea to replace Petr Cech before long.
Up front, the performances of prickly Brazil-born forward Costa have earned him a place in the Spain squad and he has netted 27 times in La Liga and eight times in the Champions League, by far his best season.
Spain's record scorer David Villa, who is coming to the end of an illustrious career, and Adrian have also contributed with vital goals and assists.
Simeone and his players may remember March 29 and their 2-1 comeback victory at Athletic Bilbao as the moment they truly started to believe the title was within their grasp.
The match at fourth-placed Bilbao's daunting San Mames arena was considered as one of Atletico's toughest of the season finale. As part of their preparations for the crunch game in the Basque Country, Simeone decided to call in some outside help.
He invited Irene Villa, who lost both her legs in a bomb attack by Basque separatist group ETA in 1991 when she was 12 years old, to speak to the players at the team hotel a few hours before kick-off.
After listening to Villa's message and heading across town to Bilbao's stadium, where Barca lost 1-0 and Real could only manage a 1-1 draw this season, Atletico fell behind in the sixth minute but hit back through Costa in the 22nd.
Koke struck the winner 10 minutes into the second half to complete a memorable comeback.
"We invited her simply so that she could tell us the story of her life, so we could see the realities," Simeone said.
"It really did us a tremendous amount of good, we felt very comfortable and we have one more friend now at Atletico."
Atletico's achievements this season will have won them many more friends among soccer's purists as they proved that splurging hundreds of millions of euros on players is not the only path to success. (Editing by Pritha Sarkar)