Diego Simeone is a shrewd operator when it comes to the Press. They hang on his every word and feed on whatever scraps he throws their way. Simeone must be one hell of a poker player. He never gives anything away; it is all masked behind a smile. After Barca had faced Atletico in La Liga, Cholo was asked how satisfied he had been about denying Barca a win three times in a row, racking up two draws in the Spanish Supercup and now one in the League. Cholo smiled and his answer raised more than a few eyebrows and giggles.
“We haven’t beaten them either” replied the Argentine Coach with a smile from ear to ear but it wasn’t a joke. This was the new Atletico. Whilst Cholo has proclaimed all season that his side are not league contenders, they are still up there. The message from the club all season has been the same mantra, a game at a time and nothing has changed. Journalists who descended on the club’s training ground in Majadahonda after the Champions League draw were to be disappointed as no one strayed from the script. It may be a mouth-watering tie but the words were more or less the same. Talk about how the rival club were a huge team but how the players were only focusing on the next game was all that journalists would get. On Saturday Simeone will face the press and unless something very unlikely happens, he will say pretty much the same as he always has done. For Atletico the only thing on the agenda is Real Betis but they have also had a bit of good luck.
This weekend sees the second El Clasico of the season. All media attention is centred on the Santiago Bernabeu and little else matters. The news of the draw has made headlines but less than they would normally do and when the dust settles from this Sunday’s tie in Madrid, the Champions League will be old news and so Cholo and his men will be saved from the full force of the media. Barca on the other hand are walking straight into the storm. Tata Martino and his players will face endless questions not only about one Madrid club but two. Maybe after this weekend the league may be no longer important for the Catalans or they may still have something to play for. If they do, they have the better run of games before and during the quarterfinals.
Before the Champions League tie Atletico face an away trip to Bilbao, whilst Barcelona won’t have to travel far, they do face bitter rivals Espanyol in the Catalan derby. Before the second leg Atletico face Champions League chasing Villarreal whilst Barca are at home to Real Betis. It would be fair to say that Barca have the easiest ties, at least on paper. Barca also have the deeper squad. A squad that has the expertise and also the experience when it comes to battling on for three trophies. A week after the second leg Barca faces Los Blancos again but this time in the Copa Del Rey. Cholo will be hoping that Los Cule have one eye on that game and they can surprise them.
In the three games we have seen this season, neither side deserved to win or done anything of real note. Barca won the Supercopa but only had one shot on target in the 2nd leg, a missed penalty. The tie was at home and for some it showed that Atletico could rub shoulders with the big boys. In the La Liga tie Barca were very disappointing. After the game Xavi sat on the Barca bus staring at the floor while Messi occasionally raised his head and hand to fans shouting from a far.
While some might feel that Atletico celebrated the draw, they didn’t. Cholo wasn’t joking. For him and for this new era at Atletico, a draw against Barca was two points lost. Now he has a chance to fix that. In Europe the Argentine has proved a master tactician and a win puts his side in the Champions League semi-finals. It could also increase Simeone stock at Barca but that is a story for another day.