Way of the Champions

There are not too many things Atletico Madrid’s – let’s say, eccentric – owner Miguel Angel Gil Marin says that can be taken at face value.

One statement, though, that did seem certain was uttered in the days between Radamel Falcao’s double in the 3-0 success over Athletic Bilbao in the Europa League final and the last round of fixtures in the La Liga calendar for 2011-12.

“If the club doesn’t obtain qualification for the Champions League it will cause a problem with income. Atletico needs to be in the top four, if we don’t enter into the Champions League it is difficult to see Falcao staying.”

The Colombian held his end of the bargain scoring on the final day as Atleti relegated Villarreal with a 1-0 win at El Madrigal, but Malaga’s own 1-0 victory over Sporting Gijon ensured it was the Andalusians and not Los Colchoneros who got the lucrative final Champions League place.

Roll forward four months to transfer deadline day and unsurprisingly Falcao was the name on everyone’s lips once more, but not as expected for a big money transfer. El Tigre was this time tearing Chelsea apart, scoring a first-half hat-trick as Atleti cruised to the European Super Cup with an eventual 4-1 win over the Champions League holders.

So if they can beat the team who wins the competition so easily, how come they can’t even get into the competition in the first place?

The question is even more galling when you consider Malaga’s 58 was the lowest ever points total to achieve Champions League football in Spain, barely stretching over the 1.5 points-per-game mark.

The answer can partly be put down to Atleti’s participation in the Europa League. It meant they had 15 more competitive games than Malaga, who had yet to experience the dual rigours of European and domestic competition. However, the real reason Atleti only managed fifth last season was that they only had six months of Diego Simeone. From when the Argentine took charge at the end of December, no-one outside the top two took more points.

At the time of his appointment it seemed a populist rather than logical decision. A fans’ favourite from his two spells there as a player he came with a reputation of playing dull but pragmatic football, a style that certainly wouldn’t sit easily at the Vicente Calderon.

And yet, despite the odd occasion where he has unwisely chosen to sit on a lead, the approach has been anything but cautious. Last season’s success was obtained by using four almost exclusively attacking players in Diego, Arda Turan, Adrian Lopez and Falcao.

He has also converted a former winger Juanfran into a full-back of such repute that he is now Spain’s second choice on the right-side of defence and that too adds an attacking balance to the side as his bursts allow Arda or Adrian to float inside, whilst Filipe Luis does the same from left-back.

So far this season, with Diego gone, there has also been an ability to adapt to a more 4-3-3 based system with Koke playing just ahead of the doble pivote of Gabi and Mario Suarez that has performed so brilliantly in both European finals.

That protection in front of the back four, allied to the now settled central defensive pairing of Miranda and Diego Godin and a brilliant young goalkeeper in Thibaut Courtois, has seen a side that conceded 27 goals in 16 League games before Simeone’s arrival last season, let in just 27 in 34 games since – 21 in 32 against teams outside Barcelona and Real Madrid.

So far it has been so very good from the Argentine – in nine months he has delivered only the club’s fourth and fifth European trophies and re-installed Atleti, alongside Valencia, as the best of the rest in Spain. Now, it is Champions League football that has to be the target.

As reports on Atleti’s finances continue to show and as Gil Marin admitted just today, its revenue is crucial to providing any semblance of balance to the club’s accounts. But it is not just necessary from a financial footing. To satisfy the ambitions of their top players and young Coach, this time next year only Champions League football will suffice.