Atletico Madrid heading into uncharted waters as La Liga favourites

Diego Godin rose highest at Camp Nou, and competed the fairytale. Perhaps it says more about the landscape of Spanish football than the true extent of Atletico Madrid and their role of plucky underdogs, but the Uruguayan defender’s equaliser against Barcelona in May 2014 was a moment to remember your surroundings. The Blaugrana’s duopoly, shared by Atleti’s city rivals Real Madrid, had been broken.

It was just the fourth time in 20 years that neither of Spain’s super clubs had clinched the league title, but never before had the story been quite so remarkable. Diego Simeone, the most dogged, determined and blood soaked of football coaches, had shaken the elite, ruffling feathers with his ugly, physical, in-your-face style. Rarely had a team embodied a leader like this; ‘El Cholo’ was the conductor of the orchestra and, for that season more than any other, a commander on the touchline for supporters too. They would roar when he said to roar; ‘Cholismo’ was in full swing, and it certainly felt like a religion. The title tilt appeared to come from nowhere; Atleti were building something special — winning the 2012 Europa League and seeing off Jose Mourinho in his final game as Real manager in the Copa Del Rey final at the Santiago Bernabéu a year later — but they had no right to do what they did.

Radamel Falcao, perhaps the best striker on the planet at the time, was sold to AS Monaco soon after the domestic cup triumph, and he wasn’t immediately replaced. This was a club with a long list of world class strikers; Fernando Torres, Diego Forlan and Sergio Agüero all preceded the Colombian, but Falcao appeared the toughest to replace. Diego Costa stepped into his boots; the Brazilian-born future Spain international didn’t appear to be up to much, his goalscoring record wasn’t special, but he representing the snarling spirit Simeone loved.

He exited the pitch that day against Barcelona with a hamstring injury, and returned too soon for the Champions League final a few short days later. Godin scored again in Lisbon, but Real were the opponents on that night, hunting their 10th European crown. Atletico Madri

d were struck but the cruellest blow in stoppage time. Sergio Ramos equalised, and they went on to lose 4-1 in stoppage time. That particular narrative wasn’t Atletico’s, but it still certified Simeone as a miracle worker.

There was a siege mentality in that team, aided by the challenge of raging against the two biggest clubs in the world at the time, with the best players in the world at their peak and the ability to add anyone else they may desire.

Six-and-a-half years on, Simeone and Atletico Madrid are on the charge again, but the circumstances and pressures surrounding them are very different, with neither of their previous rivals firing. Having played two more games, Real are level on points at the top of the table at the time of writing, after a recent Madrid Derby win, and Barcelona are struggling to mount a coherent Champions League qualification challenge. After finishing second in the last two seasons, Atleti have taken on the mantle of favourites heading into the Christmas break. There is a long way to go and though grit, determination and a steely competitiveness are hallmarks of a Simeone team, they have never found themselves in this position before; setting the standard, not rallying against it and trying to overthrow the establishment. This time, there will be no populist movement

Simeone’s team have not reached the heights of 2014 since, and there has been a nadir which suggested it may soon be time for the conductor to leave his orchestra. That isn’t to say there hasn’t been success in the interim — a second Champions League final defeat to Real in 2016 was tough to take but impressive, before another Europa League crown two years later — but there is a new look to them. Defensive robustness is still their primary attraction, but they have begun to attack in a much more nuanced, technical way. Costa left, joining Chelsea, and returned older, more injury prone and less consistent, but as bullish as ever. Alvaro Morata is in there too, a Real Madrid academy product who never truly found his feet before enjoying time at Juventus, flattering to deceive as Costa’s replacement at Chelsea and eventually finding Atleti. Neither have been the star attraction of recent years; first it was Antoine Griezmann, who joined Barcelona in 2019 and was replaced by Joao Felix, a Portuguese wonder boy from Benfica.

Felix is taking time to settle but the recent arrival of Luis Suarez — yet another feisty character in the Simeone mould — has helped inspire both him and the team. Suarez has seven goals this season, the perfect way to prove a point to Barcelona, who tossed him aside as part of a wider purge. It has developed from a crisis summer to a crisis season so far for Ronald Koeman; the unthinkable —- failure to reach the Champions League — is some way off, but it is possible. Barcelona have witnessed the graveyard for elite clubs before, in 2003, which inspired their most successful era ever, but AC Milan and Manchester United are more relevant examples of how far the elite can fall.

Last time, when Atletico Madrid won La Liga at Barcelona, it was earth-shattering, magical and a stunning achievement. This time, if Simeone can pull off the same trick again, it would simultaneously be a more measured victory and a sad indictment for declining competition.

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