“Everyone has to lose a match sometimes. In the world of soccer that is normal; we lost one and Real Madrid will lose one.” Atlético Madrid president Enrique Cerezo sought to play down the significance of Athletic Bilbao’s 1-0 defeat of league leader Barcelona on Sunday, the first league loss suffered this season by the reigning champion. However, coupled with the Catalan club’s reverse at Ajax in the Champions League last Wednesday — the first time in nine months the team has lost consecutive games — and the fact that Barça managed just one shot on goal in San Mamés, and the question marks hanging over Gerardo Martínez’s side are morphing into a single noose.
Athletic have been regenerated by Ernesto Valverde, a former azulgrana player and well-traveled coach who espouses the Camp Nou club’s philosophy of holding on to the ball, when what he has at his disposal allows for it. Barcelona dropped points in the old San Mamés stadium on its last two visits and the league is still not at the halfway point, but the numbers are there for all to see: Atlético is level at the top with 40 points, and second only by dint of having scored two goals fewer. Barcelona was unable to beat Diego Simeone’s side over two Spanish Supercup matches, and Real Madrid has been defeated in its last two meetings with its city rival. False dawns are two-a-cent on the banks of Manzanares, where the crumbling Calderón lies, but now, surely, the sun is setting on La Liga’s traditional balance of power. Not that the Argentinean coach will admit it, of course.
“We need to continue along the same lines and be realistic,” Simeone said after his side had won 0-2 at Elche on Saturday. “It is a good moment for the fans but we still need to go match by match. It does us no good to think about what possibly might be.”
Simeone took over at Atlético on December 23, 2011, replacing the venerable Gregorio Manzano, who had been called back to his alma mater when Quique Sánchez Flores was sacked. The latter, young and full of innovations, led Atlético to a first European trophy in half a century and a King’s Cup final, but failed to make a dent in the league. Manzano, perhaps too old school for the rapidly evolving Spanish league, took the club backward.
It is a good moment for the fans but we still need to go match by match. It does us no good to think about what might be”
Enter Simeone, a title-winning coach in Argentina whose only European managerial experience was a successful salvage job at Serie A side Catania. It was a bit of a gamble on Atlético’s part, but Simeone at least had the full backing of the fans having been an integral midfield cog in the double-winning side of 1995-96.
It became immediately apparent that Simeone had a gift: that of putting the fear of god into his players. Screaming from the touchline, ramping the crowd up to fever pitch and demanding maximum effort over 90 minutes from his players, Atlético was gradually transformed from an easy-on-the-eye but brittle side that occasionally flirted with sustained brilliance into a wrecking machine. He commands the perfect mix of admiration and respect from his squad.
Simeone’s Atlético isn’t always the most attractive draw in the division, but it is brutally efficient from the back four — which has conceded just nine so far this season — to the front line, where Diego Costa acts as battering ram to the more subtle touches of David Villa and Adrián. Simeone’s midfield is part art, part chore, and extremely well-stocked: even without most of its first 11, Atlético managed a credible draw at Zenit last week to remain undefeated in the Champions League.
With 69 points still to play for and the conditioning required to keep the squad fresh and fighting on three fronts, Atlético will lose a couple at least, and probably share the spoils in a few as well. But with Barça in a state of flux and Real three points adrift, maybe Atlético can afford to. At Real, Carlo Ancelotti is still without a settled first choice 11 and formation, while Barça looks increasingly toothless in the absence of Leo Messi, its much-vaunted “philosophy” having been picked apart too often in 2013. Martino’s side visits the Calderón in early January; if Atlético wins that match, the game really will be afoot.