Although the third-best supported club in Spain, with more than 65,000 season ticket holders, Atletico’s popularity rating still leaves them deep into the giant shadows of the big two. Atletico have always been seen as the poor relations to their aristocratic neighbours up the road at the Bernabeu. One of their nicknames offers some illustration of their relative wealth – Los Colchoneros, “The Mattress Makers”. It alludes to their red and white stripes being the same colours as old-fashioned mattresses. The myth of the club using left over mattress materials to make their shirts is probably just that, but it captures the essence of a club that has that ‘Cinderella’ feel about it.
Former Luton Town midfield player Radomir Antic (who scored the last minute equaliser at Maine Road to keep the club in the top division causing manager David Pleat to dance onto the pitch many years ago) actually managed Atletico to a league and cup double in 1996. But a mere four years later, they were relegated and played a couple of years in the Segundo Division before restoring their top level status under Luis Aragonnes. This was the club that Simeone took charge of when appointed as manager in 2011.
In May 2012, the club won the Europa League beating Bilbao 3-0, with a brace from Colombian hit man Radamel Falcao, and a further goal from Diego Costa – but more of them later. The new season saw Atletico face up to Chelsea in the European Super Cup and again Falcao was the star, netting a hat trick in a 4-1 trouncing of the European Champions. The season then concluded with a Copa del Rey final victory over their city neighbours, Real Madrid. It meant the club had secured three trophies in just over 12 months of Simeone’s reign. In such circumstances, fans would normally expect a club to kick on and invest to grow. This is Atletico however and finances are always stretched so, rather than investing, they sold the prolific Falcao to AS Monaco for a reported €50million.
Contrary to expectations however, the new season has seen Simeone weather the loss of his prime goal-scorer by developing Brazilian-born Diego Costa to a level where he is the first choice for the Spanish national team, and linked with a potentially massive summer bid from Chelsea. Assembling a team of developing stars sprinkled with older more established players. Simeone’s approach and development has led his club to compete in a ‘slug fest’ with Barcelona and Real Madrid. Throughout the season, pundits have been expecting Atletico to blow up and fall away. A few weeks ago, two losses to Real Madrid appeared to finally have put the upstarts out of the race. But this season’s squad are made of stronger stuff and they’ve battled their way back to the top of the league, a point ahead of the Catalans, and three in front of their neighbours.
On Saturday they visited the San Mames to face a Bilbao team that had already dented the hopes of the other top two teams. Falling a goal behind was doubly testing, but Atletico battled back for an impressive 1-2 victory. Simeone was moved to remark on the club’s website that “We are aware of how well we played, it was one of the best games we have played in the league.” It was also massive statement in the race for the title.
The La Liga season has seven games to run, and Atletico’s run-in is not overtly difficult over the next six games. An away fixture to Valencia is probably the stand-out game, but travelling to the Mestalla should surely not be more intimidating than the weekend’s match in the Basque Country. If Simeone can take victories from all of these games the ultimate test will come in the last game of the season when Atletico go to the Camp Nou to play Barcelona in what could become the title decider.
The trophies that Simeone has secured in his short tenure at the Vicente Calderon stadium have been successes against the odds for Atletico. If he can drive the club on to secure the La Liga title this season however, it would surely eclipse all of those successes and reprise the short-lived glory times of Antic. Real Madrid’s squad is packed with talent and crowned with the outstanding skills of Ronaldo and the burgeoning talent of Bale. Barcelona continue to be built on an particular ethos steeped in success and have Ronaldo’s perpetual Ballon d’Or rival in Lionel Messi and Brazil’s golden boy, Neymar. With these clubs having so much talent at their disposal, it brings into even sharper relief the success that a title for Atletico would be.
Only a few will probably remember that it was Simeone that Beckham saw red over, back in 1998. Should the Argentine pull off the trick of leading Atletico to the La Liga title against odds so stacked against them however, very few will forget what was achieved, and who achieved it.
Can Athletico defy all the odds and clinch the league title? Will they be able to sustain a title challenge in seasons to come? And can they keep hold of star man Diego Costa?
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