Atletico Madrid have stamped their mark on the Europa League, having won the competition twice in the last three years. As they prepare to face Hapoel Tel Aviv in their Group B opener in Israel tonight, Diego Simeone’s men will be fancying their chances of a place in this season’s final in Amsterdam on May 15.
Simeone is currently presiding over a side that knows where the goal is, with Atleti having scored four goals in three of their four competitive games so far. Colombian marksman Radamel Falcao has been in deadly form, hitting successive hat-tricks in the 4-0 mauling of Athletic Bilbao and the 4-1 UEFA Super Cup win over Chelsea in Monaco.
If Simeone does have a concern, it is with his defence. Last weekend saw a near calamity at the Vicente Calderon, in which Los Colchoneros allowed a 4-0 lead against Rayo Vallecano to become a narrow 4-3 victory in the space of the last eight minutes.
If Atleti overcome Hapoel, as they are widely expected to, it will be their 14th straight win in European competition since they lost 2-0 to Udinese in last season’s group stages. This year’s group stage is Atletico’s fourth in Europe’s secondary club tournament, and with Czech side Viktoria Plzen and Portuguese outfit Academica making up the quartet, questions will be asked if they fail to qualify.
Falcao has been the competition’s top scorer for the past two seasons and is now its joint-second highest scorer, level with Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, with both players on 30 UEFA Cup and Europa League goals. The Colombian is also bidding to become the first player to win the tournament three times in a row, having triumphed with Porto in 2011.
Recognising the level of tonight’s opposition, Simeone has rung the changes in selecting his squad to face Hapoel. Thiago Mendes is suspended and Filipe Luis, Gabi, Arda Turan and Diego Godin, as well as Falcao, all miss out on the trip to Israel. No doubt having half a mind on Sunday’s match against Real Valladolid, Simeone has added second string players Javier Manquillo, Pedro Martin and Saul Niguez to his squad.
With the Europa League campaign potentially a long one alongside the rigours of domestic competition, Simeone was bound to deploy a policy of squad rotation for Atleti’s group fixtures, mirroring a growing trend among Coaches of the top sides in the competition. Not that a weakened side should be a disadvantage, especially against undoubtedly inferior opponents and under the guidance of a Coach of Simeone’s calibre, a man with a proven ability to motivate his players.
Simeone has transformed Los Rojiblancos since succeeding Gregorio Manzano in December last year. The former Argentine international took over a side in 13th place in La Liga, struggling for both goals and points, and turned them into Europa League champions, his men defeating Athletic Bilbao 3-0 in the final in Bucharest and adding the UEFA Super Cup to the Vicente Calderon trophy cabinet three months later.
Atleti are noticeably a much more mature and competitive outfit under Simeone, who has injected a renewed enthusiasm into the players, in stark contrast to the laboured approach of the dour Manzano. At 42 years of age, the Argentine’s comparative youth and track record of success during his playing days enables the players to connect with him. With El Cholo’s conviction and enthusiasm, and Falcao’s goals, this year could see yet more success for Atletico, and more excitement for fans of the capital’s ‘other’ club.