For Atletico Madrid, the prospect of being top of the table at Christmas was one which would have been widely accepted as a huge achievement. Unfortunately for Los Rojiblancos, defeat at Malaga on Sunday night meant a fantastic opportunity had been wasted, leaving them level on points with Barcelona having played a game more than the Catalans.
Upon returning from their Club World Cup exploits, Barca will be under nowhere near as much pressure as they would have been had Atleti capitalised upon their trip, which raises some pertinent questions concerning the capital club’s title challenge this season.
What Barca winning the Club World Cup demonstrated, as if we didn’t know it already, was that their side is a winning machine. Marca have dubbed them ‘the Silverware Specialists,’ and the frightening thing is that they are more than capable of eclipsing the feats of the Pep Guradiola years in terms of the double treble they are attempting to achieve for the first time in history. There is absolutely no shame in Diego Simeone’s men succumbing to Barca in the title race. That has not happened yet though, and the Argentinean Coach will be relentless in pursuit.
Publicly, Cholo says that Atleti have no chance of winning La Liga. He says that they simply cannot compete with the vast quality that Barca and Real Madrid possess. He said the exact same thing the year they won the League, and he will keep saying the same thing because in principle, he is right. Los Colchoneros should not be competing, but they are, and that is testament to the work ethic and commitment to the cause that the Coach demands, and always gets. Nonetheless, privately, expect a different story. Simeone utilises the siege mentality that he has created in the Press room to drive his players on game after game.
It is worth noting how young this Atleti squad is too. Of the current group, 12 are under the age of 25, and that has probably cost them this season. At times, they are susceptible to mistakes such as the one from Jose Gimenez at Deportivo La Coruna, which cost them a win. But that is simply inexperience and something that is bound to happen with young players. They are also lacking the consistency that brought the League title in 2014 – perhaps the team from that season would have managed to get the job done in Malaga, although we will never know what could have been had Gabi not been given his marching orders.
It is though extremely encouraging to see Simeone working with and nurturing such a youthful group of players, and it does suggest that he is possibly planning on staying in Madrid for the foreseeable future, despite rumours that a move to Chelsea could be on the cards.
“Why can’t I be here longer?” Simeone asked in El Pais last week. “Why did I choose a five-year contract? Because I see a club that is ‘virgin’ and Miguel Angel [Gil Marin, the chief executive] and Enrique [Cerezo, the President] have the ability to open up new sources to strengthen in. It’s not easy to leave Atletico.”
“More than a team we are a family, and we are a real family,” he said, alluding to the team spirt that brings so much success. “We have a potential that no one has. [Jan] Oblak, Gimenez, [Luciano] Vietto, [Yannick Ferreira] Carrasco, Oliver [Torres], Koke, [Angel] Correa, Saul [Niguez], Lucas, Thomas…10 young players and the veterans are at the perfect age.”
Yet another young player will join the club in January, as 22-year-old Matias Kranevitter ends his spell at River Plate after signing for Atleti last summer. With a playing style likened to compatriot Javier Mascherano, the defensive midfielder’s arrival comes at a perfect time after Tiago Mendes’ leg break ruled him out for a lengthy period.
In addition to Kranevitter, news broke at the weekend of another midfielder signing for Simeone’s side – Celta Vigo captain Augusto Fernandez has agreed a deal subject to the approval of former club Velez Sarsfield, who still own a portion of the player’s rights. Augusto has been Celta’s unsung hero this season, combining his dirty work in the midfield with a tidy range of passing that should see him slot seamlessly into Atleti’s midfield. Simeone knows him well too, having worked with the Argentinean during his spell as Coach of River Plate.
Evidently, Atleti have compensated for the loss of Tiago by bolstering their midfield – Kranevitter and Fernandez will provide further options throughout what could be a long campaign. What is certain is that Cholo is building a remarkable squad, and they will have a successful season. Atleti will be clawing at the heels of Barca throughout and could pick up some silverware in the form of the Copa del Rey, but it could be a little bit too soon to expect anything more than that right now.