Atletico Madrid have reached the final of the Champions League for the second time in three seasons and, with another top-three finish in La Liga, 2015-16 will go down as another fine campaign for Diego Simeone, even if he ends up winning nothing.
It hasn’t always been pretty to watch, but the football played by Atletico throughout the season, both domestically and in Europe, has been indelibly marked by the Argentine’s fingerprints and has won the Spanish capital’s ‘other team’ countless new admirers.
Rarely has a side so closely and consistently mirrored the characteristics of their creator. Uncompromising, cagey and relentlessly hard-working, Simeone’s men perfected Cholo’s attitude and style over the course of the season, suffocating opponents into submission and finishing them off with a lethal strike.
In his five years in charge at Vicente Calderon, Simeone has transformed Atletico from mid-table no-hopers to top-three regulars. It’s hard to imagine Atleti without him and his frantic gestures as he prowls his technical area in that trademark leather coat, his heart on his sleeve, kicking every ball and contesting every decision.
Atleti’s fans adore Simeone, and when the Coach courts controversy, as he invariably does, they love him even more. Sent to the stands after a ball was thrown onto the pitch to stop a Malaga attack at the Calderon, Simeone protested his innocence but received a three-match ban all the same.
Conceding just 18 goals in their 38-game season in La Liga, Atletico’s success this season has again been founded on Simeone’s determination to make his side’s defence impossible to break down, even by attacking teams with more flair and better technical ability going forward.
Twice beaten by Barcelona in La Liga, Simeone nevertheless guided Atleti to victory at the Santiago Bernabeu in February, with star striker Antoine Griezmann scoring the only goal of the game against Real Madrid. Cholo built his attack around the Frenchman, who repaid his boss with 22 goals in La Liga.
Atletico never dropped out of the top three and finished 24 points ahead of fourth-placed Villarreal but, while their form in La Liga was impressive, they saved their best for the Champions League. Simeone has ensured Atleti’s regular presence in the competition’s latter stages in recent seasons and again got the chance to showcase his team against arguably two of Europe’s best sides.
Most pundits would have had Atleti down as underdogs going into the second leg of their last eight encounter with Barcelona at the Calderon, trailing the Catalans 2-1 after the first leg at Camp Nou. Simeone’s tactics were spot-on, however, as his men frustrated stopped Barca in their tracks as some fine counterattacking football and a Griezmann double sealed a 2-0 win for Atleti.
Never one to change a winning formula, Simeone employed a similar game-plan and got the same outcome, albeit by a narrower margin, to oust Bayern Munich in the semi-final and set up a repeat of the 2014 final against neighbours Real Madrid in Milan at the end of May. Another high-octane evening with Diego Simeone awaits.