Atleti’s match-up against bitter rivals Real Madrid in Saturday’s Champions League final represents both sides only chance of glory this season following Barcelona’s clean sweep of domestic honours.
The game is a rerun of the 2014 final, which eventually saw Los Rojiblancos’s stubborn resistance broken in extra time, as Diego Simeone’s team plotted their route to Milan 2016 with their typical mix of calmly-assured football and a mentality that refuses to accept defeat.
Their navigation to the top of Group C was relatively straightforward, comfortably seeing off Galatasaray home and away and beating Champions League debutants Astana, with the only black mark being a 2-1 defeat to Benfica at the Vicente Calderon.
From the knockout rounds onwards, the strength of resilience so intrinsic to Atleti began to show as it took penalties to see off PSV. After 120 minutes of football failed to produce a goal, the tie against the Dutch side proved a real test of Atleti’s patience. Los Colchoneros had fluffed more than enough chances to win, but they stuck to their game plan, their confidence from the spot shining through.
A quarter-final pairing against Barcelona was billed as a real glamour tie, having been billed as the ultimate clash of styles between Luis Enrique’s possession machine against Simeone’s streetwise guerrillas.
Amidst a cacophony of noise of at Camp Nou, Atleti refused to wilt and become suffocated as so many teams do at the home of La Blaugrana. They took their game to Barca, and Fernando Torres’ opening goal demanded an answer from Enrique’s men.
The tie ultimately turned on the actions of the former Liverpool man, who allowed his eagerness to impose, to disrupt him and he was dismissed before half-time. Atleti valiantly tried to weather the Catalan storm, before being downed by two Luis Suarez goals. But again, there was no panic from Simeone’s troops, more a quiet belief in their ability to take their chance at the Calderon.
A 2-0 defeat of the reigning European champions in Madrid eight days later demonstrated perfectly the effectiveness of Simeone’s methods and the development of his team. Barca enjoyed the more-favourable possession stats, and they did create chances, however the Atleti backline simply slammed the door in their faces.
In attack, Los Rojiblancos brilliantly harnessed their ability to strike while game was with them, Antoine Griezmann’s instinctive header, and a later penalty from the Frenchman, securing an impressive win.
A semi-final draw against Bayern Munich, kept alive the chance of an all-Madrid final, and at the Calderon the away side again bossed possession, yet Atletico won the game thanks to Saul Niguez’s wonder goal. As much as Bayern looked to probe and create, the hosts were simply too well-drilled and focused on their task not to concede at home.
In Germany, Atleti found themselves in the unusual position of leading the tie on aggregate, but again their in-game management saw them past Pep Guardiola’s Bundesliga winners. Despite falling behind twice, Atleti refused to break under wave after wave of Bayern attacks, and Griezmann’s second-half goal was enough to seal their place in Milan.