Are Atletico Madrid serious title contenders this season?
Something strange is happening in La Liga this season. Look at the top and you might see the usual commanding figure of Barcelona atop the league table. No change there then. The team going head-to-head with the Catalans isn’t last season’s champions Real Madrid, however. It’s not even the usual suspects of Valencia, or more recently the money men (this season’s financial problems aside) of Malaga, although the latter are not too far behind. For Jose Mourinho’s Blancos, so dominant last season in winning the title, you have to look in fourth. A sluggish start that’s picked up, and the momentum is building. The real talk this season so far, in a league that is simply dominated by the duopoly of Barcelona and Real Madrid, is for the other team in the Spanish capital, Atletico.
After eight league matches a Catalan side, Barcelona, is jointly leading the way with a Madrid team with 22 points from a possible 24. The Madrid team is question should probably be that from the Santiago Bernabeu, as far as football pundits are concerned. The team based in the financial district to the north of the city, along the Paseo de la Castellana. The club that is the money club of the league and, despite the new riches found at Manchester City and Paris St Germain, the money club of world football. Instead, it is the ‘little brother’, if I dare type such a thing, of the Spanish champions over at the Vicente Calderon that is matching Tito Vilanova’s men every step of the way so far.
The question everybody is now asking is: are Atleti serious title contenders this season?
It’s easy to get carried away with a good start. You only have to look at little old Levante’s surprise start to their campaign last season. Seven wins and two draws from their first nine matches. Rewind 12 months and the praise for Levante was exceptional, and rightly so given the traditional size of the club, the expectations and, as is now vital in modern day football, the size of the club’s wage bill. It was a superb start. A year ago, however, and few clubs felt threatened by Levante’s longevity. It was a case of ‘enjoy it while it lasts’. Levante were never really billed as serious Champions League qualification contenders, let alone title contenders. It didn’t last.
There is a difference this season. There is a belief, albeit a somewhat guarded one at this stage of the season, that the Mattress Makers, as Atletico are fondly known, can do something a little bit special this season. That belief may not be coming from Atleti themselves, at least not in public (in fact players and indeed manager Diego Simeone have come out and played their chances down somewhat), but their biggest rivals – this season Barcelona and Los Blancos – are wary of the threat from the Calderon.
“I have said it many times,” commented Barca boss Tito Vilanova, “nobody can say that either Madrid or Barca will win this league. Atletico, Malaga and Valencia have their chances, the championship is still just beginning. With Simeone in charge, they [Atletico] have won the Europa League. If they can compete in Europe they can compete in our league. Atletico have a balanced squad, you do not notice when they have injuries, and I am sure they will be up there fighting.”
Los Merengues and Spain goalkeeper and captain Iker Casillas agrees, and he’s been around long enough at the top to recognise a contender when he sees one. “We should not rule out Atletico Madrid,” he said. ”It’s not surprising that Atletico is up there. Since Diego Simeone arrived he has given them a good mentality and I think they can be up there fighting for the title.”
The belief is there because it doesn’t just stop at Atleti’s nine-match unbeaten start to this season. It stretches 19 matches. It stretches right back to mid-April when Simeone’s side were swept aside 4-1 on home soil by a Real Madrid team storming to the title in record fashion. Since then Atleti have won the Europe League, easing by an Athletic Bilbao side who crushed Manchester United en route to the final, and they simply out-classed Champions League winners Chelsea in Monaco in the European Super Cup. They have proved they can win trophies, and major trophies at that. Simeone hasn’t even been in charge for a year and he’s guided his team to two European triumphs, and in some fashion.
Atleti looked all at sea before the Argentine’s arrival. Lacklustre performances, seemingly no direction – both on and off the pitch. Rifts here, rifts there, rifts everywhere. An inevitability. Bringing in their former player, a former fans’ favourite, was always going to be a good choice for the fans – initially. With a returning hero comes the threat of his legend status being somewhat diluted should he fail in management. It’s happened all too often before. Simeone was a winner on the pitch. A never-say-die, blood and guts player who gave everything to the cause. He’s no different as a manager, and he’s instilling that into every one of his players. They’re not letting him down. He’s lost only five of his 30 league games in charge of Los Colchoneros. Quite a start.
At the forefront of Atleti’s success, of course, is Radamel Falcao. A player who scored goals for fun at Porto, but could he crack it in a ‘big’ league? Of course he could. He’s many people’s hottest property in world football right now, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo included. He’s certainly got a great claim for the best out-and-out striker in the world. He’s scored 40 goals this year, and nine have come this season. He hit a hat-trick to demolish Chelsea in Monaco, and he’s now being touted for moves to the biggest clubs in the world. There lies Atletico’s problems – money. A 60 million euro release clause is attached to the Columbian, and if a club meets that price Atleti are likely to sell to balance the books, and try to find another top-class replacement, as they have done previously for players such as Fernando Torres, Diego Forlan and Sergio Aguero.
He scored the winner in Atleti’s slender, and rather fortunate on the balance of play, 1-0 win in San Sebastian against Real Sociedad on Sunday night. A late, late winner to keep his side joint top of the table. A free-kick – his first ever goal as a professional from a free-kick. Quite a stat for such a player. Simeone’s men weren’t very good – but they still got the three points. The sign of a good team, many will say. Atleti have now done this in their last three matches in all competitions. Is this season theirs to really do something special?
“The Champions League is our objective,” Falcao told Colombian newspaper El Tiempo. “We are capable of doing it. Now, in the championship, we are fighting against teams with a bigger budget than the rest of La Liga, teams who have the best players in the world.” The Champions League is a very good bet for Atleti, but as the season creeps on and the wins keep coming the belief will grow. Winning is an ever-so nice habit to have. Why shouldn’t they have a shot at the title? The pressure’s off, and with Barca and Madrid likely to be slinging mud at each other in a variety of competitions come the end of the season, who’s to say little old Atleti can’t nip in and steal the spoils?
The strength in depth of Simeone’s squad is one. He’ll need Lady Luck to shine firmly on his players this season, especially star man Falcao. The depth of talent isn’t of the standard of Barca and Madrid, although it’s not to be sneered at. The true tests are also yet to come. Atleti may have defeated bright starters Betis and Malaga and demolished Premier League leaders Chelsea in the European Super Cup, but they’re yet to see how far they’ve come against the big two. Those tests will come in December, and boy will they be big tests. Just before the winter break – can Atleti hang in at the top going into 2013?
They at least have a man in charge who’s more than capable of bringing the good days back to the Calderon. He already has, to some extent, but the last time La Liga was won by Atletico, Simeone was out playing on the pitch. The good omens are certainly strong so far.
Follow me on Twitter @nicholasriggTagged in: Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, football, real madrid
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