17 May 2014 is a date that will forever be etched into the psyche of Atletico Madrid’s supporters. Needing to take something from their final La Liga game of the season away against the might of Barcelona, Diego Simeone’s side pulled off the unlikeliest of triumphs.
Fast forward a year to the day and it could have been scripted that Luis Enrique would take his team to Vicente Calderon with the opportunity to seal the title. How fitting as well that it would be a resurgent Lionel Messi that would strike the winner, meaning this time it was the Atletico fans who graciously applauded the new champions of Spain, after their own players were afforded the same honour last year in Camp Nou.
It was always going to be the tallest of orders for Atletico to scale the heights of last season, especially considering the size of the two teams that finished above them this time round. Simeone was able to splash some cash on the likes of Mario Mandzukic and the revelatory Antoine Griezmann, who found the net 22 times in the League, yet this was small change compared to Barcelona and city rivals Real Madrid.
The big beasts of the Spanish game flexed their financial muscle by recruiting stars such as Luis Suarez, James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos, while Atletico were raided by Chelsea who took Diego Costa and Filipe Luis from them, in addition to Thibaut Courtois’ loan coming to an end.
In the end the defending champions finished up with 12 fewer points than last year, some 16 behind Luis Enrique’s side. Indeed, fifth placed Sevilla only finished two points off Los Rojiblancos. Failing to qualify for the Champions League after coming so close to winning it the previous year would have been an absolute disaster for Atletico.
Things didn't begin too badly however, with the bragging rights over Real and a modicum of revenge for the defeat in Lisbon secured thanks to victory in the season-opening Super Cup. Indeed Simeone had the number of his city rivals, recording an early win at Santiago Bernabeu, and a 4-0 hammering in the return fixture to add to a Copa del Rey victory. Yet the agony of the Champions League final was not to be erased, as Carlo Ancelotti’s men prevailed on the European stage once more through a late showing in the quarter-finals.
Atletico proved that they can compete with the best, but it was a level of consistency over the season that could not be replicated this time round, with disappointing defeats against Real Sociedad, Villarreal and Celta Vigo counting them out of the title race.
The challenge now for Simeone is to ensure that winning the championship was not a flash in the pan. He must learn, build, and compete over the course of the season again next time round.
Of course it will always be extremely tough for any side to put themselves in the position of being within just a few minutes of a domestic and Champions League double, especially considering Atletico’s circumstances. But there are quality players at the club, and keeping hold of the likes of Koke and Griezmann will be crucial.
Some strong recruitment is needed over the course of the summer, and with that there would be no reason why Atletico cannot close the gap between themselves and the top two next season.