These really are the best days of their lives. Atlético Madrid are in the semi-final of the European Cup for the first time in 40 years and it is no fluke. How appropriate that the man who scored the goal that took Atlético to a 1-0 victory over Barcelona should be called Koke Resurrección. Atlético were Spain's losers, remember. They called them El Pupas, the jinxed ones. No more. A manager may never have had such an immediate and complete an impact on a club as Diego Simeone has at the Vicente Calderón.

Football's Robin Hood, as the midfielder Tiago called them, continue to rob from the rich. Here, they took from Barcelona, who will be absent from a Champions League semi-final for the first time in seven years. "We can envy the economic power of other teams, but when it comes to competitiveness we don't envy anyone," Simeone said. "Sometimes it's not the better team that wins but the team that's more convinced."

Atlético's conviction was complete. Victory, met with a roar that almost made your ears bleed, was entirely deserved; the only surprise was that Barcelona lasted as long as they did.

A goal down after five minutes, they were still a goal down after ninety. They had chances, sure, but not as many as their hosts who left the posts shuddering three times. Barcelona too will shudder when they look back on this.

"Win, win, win and win again," declared the mosaic stretched across one side of the stadium. The phrase honoured its author, Luis Aragonés, and so did supporters. Yet Atlético did not necessarily need to win. A 0-0 draw would take them through and that seemed plausible – four times these teams had met this season, four times they had drawn. All the more so as injured top scorer Diego Costa wasn't even on the bench, a fact that makes this feat all the more fantastic.

In his absence Atlético, who were also without Arda Turan, started with Adrián and David Villa. Adrián had scored just twice this season and had not even made the squad in five of the last six games. But his contribution was immense from the start. And far from seeking the draw, Atlético tore into the visitors.

It started with Raúl García shooting over. Then Adrián smashed a shot against the crossbar. The ball dropped to Villa whose cross reached Adrián and he found Koke free near the other post to score. The roar was deafening and the clock showed just five minutes.

It would be tempting to say that Barcelona were soon hanging on for dear life except they were barely hanging on at all.

They did not protect themselves, just hoped the storm would pass. They looked terrified and overrun, a team with virtually no defence and a goalkeeper who frightened them almost as much as the forwards running beyond them. "There was a very big difference between one team and the other in the first twenty minutes," Gerardo Martino, the Barcelona manager, admitted. "We couldn't put together four or five passes."

Atlético sensed the weakness and pushed Barcelona on to the ropes, pounding away. The amazing thing was that they did not land the knock out blow.

Villa shot over, Pinto was nearly caught by Adrián and twice more they hit the post inside 20 minutes. Both times it was Villa, from left then right.

The score may have been different but this was as much a hammering as last season's semi-final against Bayern Munich. At half time the fact that they were losing only 1-0 was the best thing Barcelona could say. There had been a lovely nutmeg from Neymar and a Messi header wide but survival was all they could have expected. More, in fact.

If Barcelona had been given a second chance, they appeared determined to take it but the sensation was a fleeting one. The second half started with Xavi and Messi combining to play in Neymar. Thibaut Courtois was quick and the loose ball dropped to Messi, who was suffocated by a pack of defenders. A moment later, Xavi scooped over five yards out. Xavi had the next chance, too, and it was a good one. But he headed Dani Alves's cross wide.

Martino took off Cesc Fabregas, who did not even wait to see the board before departing: he knew his number was up. But the better chances remained Atlético's, dashing forward when tiredness permitted and into the space Barcelona allowed them. Adrián left to a standing ovation and Diego came on, immediately drawing a near-post save from Pinto. The Barcelona goalkeeper made another stop from Gabi when Atlético broke through on the other side. And a minute later Howard Webb ignored Villa tumbling.

Neymar put a diving header wide from Alexis's cross, but this was desperate now. Barcelona lacked imagination, still less inspiration. Martino made the surprising admission that he wanted Messi to be involved less often but more decisively. He was neither. When the best opportunity fell in the final minute, it fell to Cristian Rodríguez, an Atlético substitute. Pinto saved the chance but no one saved Barcelona.

Atlético's incredible story continues.