Under Diego Simeone, Atletico have made a mockery of the most unequal playing field in sport, a league set up to ensure that they are little more than also-rans
There have been many intriguing stories to savour in European football this season. Some title races, like the ones in England and Spain, could go down to the final day of the season. Others, like in Germany, are already over. With the Champions League also entering its climactic stages, the next few weeks promise even more entertainment.
Man of steel: Atletico de Madrid's head coach Diego Simeone . Pic/Getty Images
After Bayern won the treble last season, many wondered what Pep Guardiola – who took over last summer from Jupp Heynckes – would do for an encore. Quite a lot, as it turns out. When Bayern clinched the Bundesliga last weekend, they did so with a whopping seven games to spare. Of their 27 league outings, they had won 25, drawing the other two. Dortmund in second place, 25 points back, were a speck in the distance.
In their last game, Bayern completed over 1000 passes. After seeing off Arsenal in the round of 16, Manchester United await them in the last eight of the Champions League. There was a time when it might have been considered the marquee clash of the round, a repeat of that memorable 1999 final. But so swift has been United's descent into mediocrity and chaos this season that even the diehards are hoping for little more than the avoidance of total humiliation.
United's travails have dominated the storyline in England, even as Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool – Arsenal look to be in danger of falling away — contest the title. Jose Mourinho and Chelsea have the experience and nous, while City have the most formidable squad. Liverpool have got by on adrenaline and a superb forward line. But it's hard to see how their under-matched squad will manage to upset both Chelsea and City.
Atletico Madrid are not strangers to silverware, but it's entirely fair to say that their best years belonged to a bygone era that few of us can recall. The last of their nine La Liga successes came way back in 1996. To put that into perspective, consider this. Barcelona have won the title eight times since. Real Madrid, in whose shadow Atleti have existed for decades, have popped open the champagne on six occasions.
With eight games to go, Atleti lead La Liga by a point from Barcelona, with Real two further back. They have been beaten just thrice in the league, conceding a miserly 21 goals along the way. Barcelona await them in the quarterfinal of the Champions League as well, after they brushed aside once-mighty AC Milan in the last 16.
Even in normal circumstances, that would have been a big story. What Atleti have done though is make a mockery of the most unequal playing field in all of sport, a league set up to ensure that they are little more than also-rans. In 2012-13, Barcelona and Real took him 140million Euros each from TV rights for La Liga games. Atleti's share was 42million Euros. Needless to say, they didn't go out and buy anyone for 100million Euros, as Real did with Gareth Bale.
The lack of financial clout has been compensated for by the managerial skill and street fighting instincts of their coach, Diego Simeone. With his dark shirts, leather jackets and 2mm stubble, Simeone – vilified in England after his role in getting David Beckham sent off at France '98 – looks more like a hoodlum than a football manager. Over the course of two seasons though, he has put together a fearsome side.
The foundation is based on the sort of central defensive axis that most English teams can only look at in envy. Diego Godin and Miranda are both warriors capable of giving the most talented centre forwards a buffeting.
Felipe Luis and Juanfran provide both width and solidity on either side, while Gabi, the captain who scored a screamer against Real earlier this month, provides combativeness and composure in midfield. Arda Turan and Koke have both set up plenty of chances, and Atleti have been fortunate to have Diego Costa, a mastiff of a centre forward, to put many of them away.
Costa will not win any prizes for balletic grace. But he is tenacious in the extreme, and as dangerous in the air as he is with his feet. Though the rest of the team have found goals hard to come by in recent weeks, his habit of popping up when most needed has kept them at the top of the table.
Financial realities mean that Simeone's marvellous side may be broken up as early as this summer. All the more reason to enjoy this modern-day fairy tale while we can.