Just 28 months ago, midway through the 2011-12 season, Atletico Madrid lay just four points above relegation zone. The season before they had finished 38 points off the top of La Liga, the previous campaign the gap was more than 50. While the club had ended its 14-year trophy drought by lifting the Europa League in 2010, they had failed to build on that success. A year later, their strike force had been dismantled with the departures of Diego Forlan and Sergio Aguero, while a player who could have been a fixture between the posts for the next two decades, David de Gea, had also been sold off.
To Atletico fans, this was nothing new. Their previous trophies had come with a league and cup double in 1996. Within four years they were playing in the Segunda Division. The club was a shambolic mess and a byword for mismanagement.
Then, in December 2011, looking for the 49th manager in the 24 years since the Gil family took control of the club, they turned to a man who had been at the heart of the last winning Atletico team. It was an easy choice: an appointment of a club icon who would win fan approval and take the pressure off the club’s owners. But a man who that point had been a nomadic coach of varying success has exceeded even the wildest expectations.
In less than two-and-a-half years, Diego Simeone has overseen a transformation of the team’s performances and its image almost unparalleled in its scale in modern history at these rarified, financially propelled heights of the sport.
Upon his unveiling, Simeone talked endlessly about “commitment” and “intensity.” From a man who embodied those qualities in the heart of the Atletico midfield during two spells as a player, there was hope that they would ring true. But it was also easy to think that this would be another false dawn. Every manager arrives at a new club with bold talk about how under them everything will be different, that they know what the problems are and how to fit it. But no coach as ever backed up their initial statements more than Simeone.
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His side have become a frighteningly accurate mirror image of not only Simeone the player, but Simeone the intimidating man in black on the sidelines. No team now gets an easy ride against Atletico, especially, in a reversal of years of meek performances, the big clubs. Last May Atletico ended a run of 13 years and 25 matches without a win against their overshadowing neighbors Real Madrid by beating them in their own backyard in the final of the Copa del Rey final. It was the final psychological barrier for Simeone’s team to overcome. This season in seven matches against Real Madrid and Barcelona, Atletico’s only defeats have come in the semifinals of a Copa del Rey that their thin squad could probably have done without anyway.
Atletico now sit three points clear of Real Madrid, four of Barcelona, with just five matches remaining. In the quarterfinals of the Champions League they deservedly beat Barcelona, despite missing star striker Diego Costa due to injury, to reach the last four of Europe’s premier competition for the first time in 40 years.
Were they to fall at the last and fail to win any silverware this season, it would still have been a campaign deserving of immense credit. In the last five years, Atletico have made a net profit of £38 million on transfers. In contrast, Barcelona have made a loss of £173, Real Madrid £307 million.
If they are to go a step further and incredibly reach the final of the Champions League then they will have to get past Chelsea, a club with an even bigger net spend, £311 million. The gulf between the clubs is illustrated not only by that figure but by Atletico having to ask nicely if Thibaut Courtois, their goalkeeper on loan at the Vicente Calderon until he is deemed ready for Chelsea, can play against the club that owns his registration.
Simeone, though, won’t be resting on his laurels or contemplating failure for an instant. And it would be foolish in the extreme for anyone else to write them off, either.
Despite the huge discrepancy in the costs of the players between the two teams, Atletico Madrid are far more coherently put together. Jose Mourinho, a man with a similar footballing philosophy to Simeone, has started to mold the squad to his tastes but it is still weakened by a similar lack of continuity to that which blighted Atletico for so long. Chelsea are still hampered by their owner’s personal extravagances (Fernando Torres) as well as obvious gaps in the squad (central midfield).
Meanwhile, every cog of Atletico’s team fits. Their defense, led by the resolute partnership of Miranda and Diego Godin, is every bit as resolute as Chelsea’s, while their goalkeeper is arguably better than the man whose presence has continued to keep him at Atletico, Petr Cech. In midfield, Gabi and Tiago/Mario Suarez work tirelessly behind Koke and Arda Turan, a duo who both diligently attend to their defensive duties as well as contributing key creativity. Raul Garcia, an unusual midfielder whose primary contribution is scoring goals, or Spain’s all-time leading scorer David Villa then support Diego Costa.
The Brazilian-born Spain international is already being lined up by Chelsea for next season and it is easy to see why. His determination, aggression and no little ability in front of goal make him perfect for a Mourinho team. He is also perfect for Atletico and right now Simeone has him. And a man who played second fiddle to Radamel Falcao last season, before Atletico sold off another of their star names, could well be the decisive factor in ensuring Simeone and Atletico’s incredible rise reaches the ultimate peak in Lisbon next month.