Atlético Madrid – can they break Spain’s ‘top two’ in the near-future?

Posted: May 18, 2013 in La Liga
Atleti players bask in Copa Del Rey glory.

Atleti players bask in Copa Del Rey glory

It was the day before Christmas eve (2011) when Diego Simeone was appointed as Atlético Madrid’s new manager. He replaced Gregorio Manzano, now manager of RCD Mallorca, with a lot of work to get cracking with: he inherited an Atléti team which were in 10th place and underachieving. Fast forward to the 17th of May 2013, and Diego Simeone is enjoying a Copa Del Rey final win over arch-rivals, Real Madrid. The last time Atléti had won the trophy, Diego Simeone was also at the club… As a player in 1996. Not only did Simeone get the better of rivals Real Madrid, but he added another trophy to his CV in his three-year, and counting, tenure at Atléti. Since taking over in December 2011, Simeone has guided Atléti to three trophies and their highest league finish since 1996, where they won the league and domestic cup double: Europa League, UEFA Super Cup and the most recent Copa Del Rey triumph. With the season coming to an end, Atléti are guaranteed 3rd place which may leave a bitter taste in some fans’ mouths considering they were in 2nd place for a long spell this season, but Real Madrid hitting form is something most teams would struggle to contain in all fairness. Simeone signing a contract extension, until 2017, after having many top European sides sniffing around him, shows that he possibly wants to continue with this project he’s working on with Atléti. What’s the project, you may be asking yourselves? I think it’s one which Simeone’s come close to seeing come to fruition this season: breaking the top two in Spain up. Not only have Atléti come extremely close to breaking the top two up, they beat one of the members of that top two, Real Madrid, in the Copa Del Rey final.

It’d be silly and quite reactionary to say there’s a power shift in Madrid but it may all go slightly pear-shaped for Atléti’s city rivals, Real Madrid, in the near-future. Real Madrid have been far from perfect this season, a season which Mourinho has described as his “worst”. They had a very uncharacteristically woeful start to the season, were humiliated in the Champions league by Dortmund in the 1st leg, saw Barcelona walk away with the title and lost to their rivals, Atléti, in the final of the last cup they could’ve won this season. Mourinho’s done his customary thing where he’s divided the changing room, openly criticised his players and has caused rift between the fans who have almost taken sides with either him or Casillas. It’s all pathetic, to be honest. Ramos has tried being the peacemaker and Pepe has fallen out with Mourinho in recent weeks, too. It’s becoming silly and chaotic, which is something the Spanish media seem to be taking advantage of and, in a quite nauseating manner, tend to make the littlest bit of news at the club a ‘back-page special’. With Mourinho all-but surely leaving in the summer, it’s going to be interesting to see how Real Madrid cope with his absence. Has he divided the changing room to the point that some players don’t even get along anymore, which’d surely see many departures. Is there a lack of team bonding and morale? This is something Atléti have to pounce on next season.

Atléti will be suffering a monumental set-back in the summer when they lose Radamel Falcao who, if rumours are to be believed, is close to joining Monaco. The loss of Falcao will be something that may not be as bad as first thought, if recent years are anything to go by. Torres was replaced by Aguero who was replaced by Falcao: Atléti know how to replace key-players and bring in players who are equally as good. Despite being out for three weeks with an injury and having a dip in form, Falcao has still scored 31 club goals this season. Whilst it may be crazy to say the loss of a 30+ goal man may not be as bad as thought out by many, one has to look at how well Diego Costa has been since the turn of the year for Atléti. Costa has scored eight league goals this season, seven of them in 2013; he also ended the Copa Del Rey tournament as the top scorer with eight goals. Add to that the fact he has two Europa League goals and 10 assists this season, you’ve someone whose scored 18 goals and assisted ten in a team where he’s having to share a spot with, arguably, the best striker in Europe. I’m not saying Costa is a direct replacement for Falcao, or that he’s as good as the Colombian, but I think he’ll recuperate a chunk of the goals that will be left void by Falcao next season. There are three names which’ve been linked as replacements for Falcao which I believe are quite plausible: his compatriot, Jackson Martinez, who’s scored 30-odd goals in his first season at Porto, Fernando Torres who has been underwhelming at Chelsea but could rekindle his career at his boyhood club, and David Villa – someone who’ll thrive off being the centrepiece of an attack, like he was at Valencia.

Atléti are a side which, in recent weeks, have shown that they need a plan B. Their usual 4-4-2 formation hasn’t been that much of a success and their entertaining style of play has been hit hard. Atléti play with their two wide-men who are actually midfielders, which means that they don’t have the particular nous to offer the directness that a pure winger would. Koke and Turan are the usual ‘wide-men’ in this formation; those two have been sublime for Atléti this season. Koke, at the age of just 21, has assisted 10 goals this season and scored three; he’s really come of age, and that has shown in his game this season. Arda Turan has been used, and I’m not exaggerating, everywhere in the final third, bar centre-forward: left-mid, centre-mid, attacking-mid, right-mid, left-wing and right-wing. He’s been an influential figure for Atleti, and one that’d be a major loss for the club this summer, with many top European clubs looking at him.

It’s hard to look past Atléti’s defence as one of the reasons as to why they’ve overachieved this season. Atléti have conceded the least amount of goals in La Liga this season (30) and one of the main instigators of that stat is Chelsea’s Thibaut Courtois. The 21-year-old Belgian has kept an astonishing 19 clean sheets in the league. It’s not only the stats that make you realise how stupendously brilliant Courtois is, but it’s also the way he performs every week: he shouts at his defence, organises them. What makes it even better is the fact he didn’t know a word of Spanish when he joined, had to learn from a whole new culture of football in Spain and had to build a bond with his defenders. He currently has the most clean sheets in La Liga this season, and is leading the Zamora list. At the end of this piece, I’ve embedded a video of Courtois’ triple save against Betis; it’s a must watch. The two Brazilians in defence, Miranda and Felipe Luis, have also been superb in this campaign. Miranda has really come out of his shell and is receiving many deserved plaudits after his significant improvisation from last season. Felipe Luis, following Monreal’s departure from La Liga, is now safely the best left-back in Spain barring the Real Madrid and Barcelona boys. The way in which he attacks and defends with equal determination and quality is a genuine joy to behold for the Atléti fan base and neutrals alike.

Two of the biggest losses Atléti will face this season are Falcao and Courtois’ departures. Although there are rumours of Courtois returning for another season on loan, or even permanently if Falcao moves to Chelsea – which seems unlikely at the moment – it’s a certainty that Falcao will move from Atléti, and they’ll get a very good sum of money for him; money that they can use to add 2-3 quality players across the pitch to push on and break the top-two up. Simeone will be at the helm next season and will, undoubtedly, get the best out of his group of players once more. After seeing how close his side came to breaking the top two, and how sweet the win over their rivals in the Copa Del Rey final felt, Simeone will be hungrier next season having gotten the taste of how incredible it was to get one up on Real Madrid. The next few years are very promising for Atléti and, providing they keep Simeone at the helm for a few more years and he keeps his team close-knit, I feel as though it’ll only be a matter of time before Atléti do what every La Liga fan wants (apart from Barcelona and Real Madrid) – challenge for the title and break the top-two up.

 

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