By Panos Bletsos
While Barcelona and Real Madrid were fighting it out in front of a sell-out 98,000 crowd at the “Camp nou” and a worldwide television audience, another party was being held some 500 kms to the west of Spain. A last-minute Weligton own-goal helped Atlético Madrid beat high-flying Málaga 2-1 and noiselessly reach the Primera División summit. But are they really up for it?
Perhaps not. After all, Los colchoneros have been searching for their own “La décima”, their tenth league crown, since that landmark 1995-’96 season. Then, with their current boss, Diego Simeone, as their defensive lynchpin and at the time without any - otherwise welcome – European distractions they did the La Liga and Copa del Rey double for the first and only time in their history.
Maybe repeating that feat is beyond the Atlético side of today. But Cholo and his boys certainly have what it takes to give both Barça and Real Madrid a run for their money this season.
First of all, there’s Simeone himself. The Argentine, still only 42, has vivid and arguably fond memories of what it means to play for Atlético. And even though it’s only been six years since he hung up his boots he’s had enough time to make a strong impression as a coach too: he became champion with both Estudiantes de La Plata and Buenos Aires giants River Plate before steering the Madrid outfit to UEFA Super Cup and Europa League glory this year.
So, there’s also the know-how. Although they haven’t won any major domestic trophies in a long 16 years, Atlético have claimed four continental honours since 2009! And they did it in style, comprehensively winning all of their last 15 European matches, including victories against Lazio, Valencia and Chelsea, an attainment no other club has ever achieved in UEFA competitions.
And it’s no wonder, given the strength of their squad. 20-year-old Belgian Thibaut Courtois is one of the brightest young goalkeepers anywhere, Brazilian Miranda leads the defense, while his compatriot Filipe Luís and fellow fullback Juanfran become the two extra men on the wings, helping out talented midfielders such as Tiago Mendes, Cristian Rodríguez and Arda Turan. Captain Gabi, Raúl García and Koke do most of the hard work in the heart of the pitch, providing ammunition for one of the classiest finishers in world football: Radamel Falcao.
The Colombian has astonishingly managed to improve compared to his Porto stint and has bagged 48 goals in just 57 outings with the Spanish side, which has subsequently not lost a single game in six months! In fact, Atlético have drawn three and won 16 of their last 19 matches, winning all of their last nine. The last time they tasted defeat was a 4-1 home battering at the hands of bitter city rivals Real, who they will play again at the “Santiago Bernabeu” in early December, just two weeks before they visit Barcelona. If Simeone and his boys can keep up their momentum for the next couple of months, these will be two clashes you wouldn’t want to miss. And then, who knows what might happen.
Panos Bletsos has been a contributing writer to Soccer 365 for the past year or so, but has spent nearly two decades covering the Beautiful Game for a number of media, including Goal.com. Based in Greece, he also served as a Euro 2012 TV commentator for the public broadcast corporation ERT. You can follow him on Twitter @PanosBletsos.
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