Atletico Madrid will not hold this season long in the memory. Eliminated from Europe quicker than ever before, thrown out of the Copa del Rey by arch rivals Real Madrid, and the title race? Over before they could even ask the question. But on Saturday night at the Santiago Bernabeu, they should take some solace and some schadenfreude from spoiling Real Madrid’s fun.
It was all square in the end (1-1), and even that was a bitter elbow in the gut, conceding the equaliser late on from a set-piece. The result was worse than last week against Athletic Club, but the outlook far better. If last week spoke of division and uncertainty, then this was the opposite. This draw, with just a little squinting, resembled the holy grail for Atletico Madrid – Cholismo.
For if Barcelona are condemned to be compared to something they are unlikely to ever meet again, then Atleti too are cursed with their recent past. Diego Simeone will probably repeat the miracles of the mid-2010s, howmany artists truly have more than one or two brilliant albums? So what Atletico must aspire to is finding something different, with the same principles.
On a cold Saturday night in the Spanish capital, Real Madrid were expected and needed to win. Off the back of a rousing 5-2 victory over Liverpool, paying homage to the great dribbler Amancio Amaro, every time they turned, they found Rojiblanco in front of them. On each occasion Vinicius Junior twisted, there they were. When the play was switched and necks swivelled, there they were again.
Just being organised is enough to make Colchoneros sit up this season, but they were bold too. Subdued and sober last week, Yannick Carrasco was empowered to attack defenders with aggression again. 19-year-old Pablo Barrios started. When he came off, it was not for Axel Witsel but an offensive change in shape, putting Angel Correa and Antoine Griezmann up front. It was working too, as the pair unsettled the Santiago Bernabeu. After Correa was sent off, Alvaro Morata came on.
Devoid of drama, each setback was absorbed. Reinildo Mandava, their best and some would speculate only reliable defender, was stretchered away without any major impact on the game. When Correa did go, though not quietly, Atleti continued to attack, and from there came the free-kick for the Jose Maria Gimenez goal.
Most impressive of all, when Real Madrid raised the noise, piled on the pressure and lifted the pace, Atletico were still there. It’s a feeling like no other in football, a sense of inevitability that has gobbled up the best teams in Europe over the last 12 months. Naturally, there were more chances, but few were clearcut. Real Madrid created the conditions to complete the comeback, where usually all structure crumbles into the palm of their hand. Defending as a unit, you couldn’t really single out the hero or the heroics for Atleti.
Granted this is a small moral victory not an actual win, and there are still plenty of questions to be asked before a suspicious Atleti support declare that their side is no longer suspect. For a start, there is no denying that this Real Madrid was missing some key elements, and looked a little short of vitamins. Only against Barcelona will they find so much space to attack into, and only against these two will a draw do.
However Simeone now has something to point to. Some evidence that his side can be miserly, can rise to the occasion, and can compete against the Champions of Europe no less. He can now ask his side, who have in all honesty been treading water for some time, to add things to a template, rather than produce the prototype.
As Cholo Simeone and Atletico Madrid work out if the romance is still there as well as the love, this performance flirted with some of the basics that took them to the top.