Atleti make it ‘the big three’

“Today will be one of the most important days in the history of the club,” Atletico Madrid Coach Diego Simeone declared after his side achieved the nigh impossible – breaking Spain’s duopoly to win La Liga in 2014. Almost two years on from that famous triumph and Atleti are still up there amongst the best in Spain. The duopoly was broken then and it has remained so ever since.

Los Colchoneros are currently sitting pretty in second place, eight points behind leaders Barcelona and four points ahead of rivals Real Madrid – whom they recently beat yet again at the Santiago Bernabeu and now boast a superior head-to-head.  That derby win seemed to galvanise Simeone’s players, who had been struggling for goals during February. They have now won four on the trot and have scored three times consecutively for the first time since 2012.

The star man, yet again, was Antoine Griezmann. The Frenchman was a livewire throughout as he scored for the fourth game in a row. Even more encouraging was to see the likes of Saul Niguez and Angel Correa getting on the scoresheet too. The former now has eight goals in all competitions while the latter has seven, also in all competitions. Goals too have come from Fernando Torres – who is still proving to be very valuable – and Yannick Carrasco.

Seeing others get on the scoresheet was a positive that Simeone noted after full-time as he remarked “the important thing is that goals come from different areas of the pitch”. Indeed, it is a boost to see the goals start to flow with more ease while, at the same time, nothing has been sacrificed defensively. In their last seven League outings, Los Rojiblancos have shipped just one goal. In 29 League matches to date, they have only conceded a total 12 goals across nine games – collecting 20 clean sheets in the process.

While they are in second, a tilt at the title is somewhat difficult – it would require a near-monumental collapse from Barca, which is very unlikely. What is likely, however, is that Atleti will retain their position and see out the season ahead of Real – which is as good as it gets, if the League is out of reach.

When Atleti did win the League title a couple of years back, it was the first time that any side had broken the Spain’s duopoly. Not since Valencia in 2004 – coached by the recently-unveiled Newcastle United boss Rafa Benitez – had a side other than Barca or Real won the League. And other than Villarreal’s second-place finish in 2008, no other side during that decade-long period had even claimed second place.

With Spain’s ‘big two’ having grown only ever richer and richer in recent years, Atleti’s rise is made all the more remarkable. Unlike Barca and Madrid, Atleti cannot go out and pick from the best players in the world. They simply do not have the financial means to do so. In fact, they almost have to do the opposite. While the world’s best are continually linked with moves to Camp Nou and the Santiago Bernabeu, with many of them finding their way there, Atleti have to continually fight off interest in their prized assets, with many of them eventually being let go.

From the side that achieved the impossible in 2014 by winning the League and from being one minute away from beating Los Blancos in the Champions League final, four key players were sold on the following summer; Diego Costa and Filipe Luis both went to Chelsea, David Villa moved to New York and Thibaut Courtois returned to Chelsea.

When big players leave the Bernabeu or Camp Nou, they are replaced with players of the same calibre; some recent examples at Real include Xabi Alonso being replaced by Toni Kroos and James Rodriguez coming in for Angel Di Maria; at Barca, Pedro Rodriguez’s departure to Stamford Bridge saw then-Atleti star Arda Turan take his place, the signing of Luis Suarez was to replace the outgoing Alexis Sanchez, while Ivan Rakitic came in for Xavi Hernandez.

In contrast, when Diego Costa left for Chelsea, Atletico turned to Mario Mandzukic as a replacement – twelve months later, the Croatian was shipped off to Juventus. Arda’s move to Barca saw the young Carrasco arrive. Atleti have spent the fraction of the money compared to Barca and Real on new signings, while trying to continually replace their most important players. This summer, they might have to do so again if Griezmann, who is wanted by a host of clubs, does follow suit.

By hook and crook, but mostly by his ability to completely change the mindset at the Vicente Calderon, Simeone has led his side right up there for a their straight season. Another League crown may not be possible and a surprising home defeat saw them eliminated from the Copa del Rey. Still, coming in second would be an incredible achievement. while their Champions League hopes remain alive too, and although they are not considered one of the favourites, they should not be discounted either.

In 2014, as mentioned, they made the Champions League final. Last season, they were only pipped by Real in the quarter-finals with a late goal from Javier Hernandez. Atleti, however, are much stronger this season and only one of the competition’s heavyweights will be able to stop their quiet-but-steady march to Milan.

A goalless draw in the first leg against PSV was perhaps not the best result, but, given their defensive strength, Atleti are a safe bet to progress at home. And, once a team makes the quarter-finals, anything can happen from then on. Seeing Atleti win the Champions League may seem impossible, but, as they showed two years ago and keep reminding us week in week out, furthered by every derby victory, Atleti are one side who can do the impossible.