Late on Saturday night time, not lengthy after his gamers had overwhelmed Barcelona 1-0, immortalised a second even they hadn’t skilled earlier than with a celebratory photo taken in an improvised restoration room beneath the stands and headed residence nonetheless of their equipment, Diego Simeone sat in an empty auditorium and began one other Zoom name. A sequence of journalists appeared on display screen, taking it in turns making an attempt to get him to say Atlético Madrid are going to win the league. Or at the very least attempt to. One after the other they failed, till anyone requested if he noticed any similarities between this workforce and the one which took the title six years in the past. “No,” he mentioned, “I don’t.”
Simeone was at the very least half proper. This isn’t like 2013-14, presumably essentially the most extraordinary season within the membership’s historical past. It’s higher. Effectively, possibly not higher, precisely, and it’d nonetheless be too early to say it’s something in any respect. However one thing is constructing, a sense that Atlético should not simply candidates; they might even be favourites. That there could by no means be a greater likelihood to win La Liga; that there could by no means have been, the truth is. Not even again then, after they really did. Which is why if Simeone wasn’t saying so, they might do it for him, the entrance web page of AS the subsequent morning shouting: “Atlético are going for the league.”
Few mentioned that when eight video games into the 2013-14 season, Atlético had gained each match, together with the derby in opposition to Actual Madrid (they misplaced to Espanyol in week 9). Eight video games into this season, they’ve gained solely six, however even again then issues didn’t look nearly as good as they do now. Eight out of eight was not sufficient to be high, for a begin. And whereas Atlético should not high in the mean time both, and never taking part in the perfect soccer in Spain – each these issues belong to Actual Sociedad – their place might be stronger than ever. In addition to, on Saturday night time this workforce did one thing even that revolutionary aspect couldn’t.
Atlético had gone 14 years with out beating Madrid after they did so within the Copa del Rey ultimate on the Bernabéu. They hadn’t gained the league in 18 years and nobody anticipated them to once more however they did that too, on the Camp Nou. They reached the Champions League ultimate for the primary time in 40 years, then obtained there once more two years later, though destiny twice twisted the knife. They did all that, however by no means defeated Barcelona within the league till this weekend when, on the 18th try underneath Simeone, Yannick Carrasco slipped away from Marc André ter Stegen simply earlier than half time and put the ball into an empty internet from 50 yards out.
Lots has modified since 2014 – solely José María Giménez and Koke stay, whereas Diego Costa left and got here again – however Simeone continues to be round. He has competed in opposition to Guardiola, Tito, Tata, Luis Enrique, Valverde, Setién and Koeman; Mourinho, Ancelotti, Benítez, Zidane, Lopetegui, Solari and Zidane once more. A decade after taking up, he has constructed a brand new aspect to compete once more at a time when their biggest opponents seem much less outfitted to take action than earlier than. At this stage in 2013-14, Atlético had been behind Barcelona and 4 factors forward of Madrid. Victory on Saturday night time leaves them ready the place in the event that they win both of their video games in hand over Actual Sociedad, they’ll go high. It additionally leaves them three factors away from Madrid with a sport in hand, seven above Sevilla and 9 forward of Barcelona.
There may be extra. Atlético have gained 5 in a row. They’re the one unbeaten workforce this season, a run that goes again 24 video games – their greatest ever. They haven’t misplaced because the first day of February and haven’t been overwhelmed at residence since Messi flew into the trenches in December 2019. Their aim distinction is +16, their greatest at this stage because the 1996 double-winning season. They haven’t trailed but. They’ve solely conceded two objectives, and people got here at 5-0 up in opposition to Granada and 2-0 up at Osasuna. Each instances they scored once more.
When Madrid beat Atlético in February, there was a way of one thing slipping away, possibly even the top of an period. Some Madrid followers (who actually ought to have recognized higher after that banner) mockingly chanted for Simeone to remain. When Messi scored the aim that defeated them as soon as extra, all of the Atlético supervisor might do was applaud. That and get again to work. A 12 months on in the identical enviornment, empty now, Simeone’s aspect beat them again.
On one stage, it won’t look like a lot. Barcelona have misplaced as many video games as they’ve gained and are actually not superb. They gifted Atlético the one aim, the ball given away first, Gerard Piqué lacking Ãngel Correa’s cross subsequent, and Ter Stegen getting nutmegged someplace close to the midway line after that. There was one thing within the unattended aim that defines them: defenceless, an open invitation to opponents. Piqué went off injured and is prone to miss the remainder of the season. Lionel Messi doesn’t need to be there. Griezmann would possibly as effectively not be. And nonetheless Barcelona had probabilities to equalise: Clément Lenglet particularly ought to have scored.
However there was symbolism within the consequence, El Mundo suggesting that Carrasco had “damaged the curse”, and there may be substance too. The actual fact that Barcelona aren’t superb is a part of the purpose, as is the truth that Madrid don’t persuade – though Villarreal and significantly Actual Sociedad need to be taken severely. These stats should not likelihood.
It is a new workforce, a unique one. Atlético had two early probabilities, Ter Stegen making an excellent save from Saúl and watching Marcos Llorente smash a shot in opposition to the bar. Taking part in 5 on the again with Carrasco and Kieran Trippier as wing-backs, they defended deep and hit Barcelona with a breakaway. If that appeared like basic Cholismo, the second half was completely different. Atlético defended with possession, preserving the ball and barely seeming to be underneath stress. Extra importantly, different video games have been completely different too.
Atlético’s evolution, or in any other case, is a recurring theme: nearly each season, it appears, they edge in the direction of one thing extra expansive solely to edge again once more. Simeone even advised final 12 months that supporters shouldn’t be swayed by voices demanding “higher soccer”, that Atlético change into one thing they’re not. “We like pizza,” he mentioned, even when some gamers didn’t.
That have urges warning however this season it seems to be like they could even have embraced a extra balanced weight loss plan, and never as a result of there’s a slice in every hand. The arrival of João Félix might need introduced the shift a 12 months in the past; the arrival of Luis Suárez this summer season actually has, Simeone himself rightly says. Not solely has the Uruguayan began effectively himself, his presence situations the remainder, bringing various things out of his new teammates. Atlético have performed greater, shorter, combining nearer to aim.
It has been good for them, Koke says. It has been good for Félix too, arguably the excellent participant in Spain up to now; Koke himself has emerged stronger, doubts left behind; and Marcos Llorente is flourishing in a brand new position found at Anfield. But it surely’s everybody, a way of collective revival which Simeone was eager to emphasize, “complicity” his new favorite phrase. Requested about Koke on Saturday, his reply managed to namecheck 12 different gamers. A handful of questions later, he crowbarred within the few that he hadn’t talked about earlier than.
Towards Barça, Suárez and Lucas Torreira had been unavailable having examined optimistic for coronavirus on worldwide obligation, the latter denied the possibility to face his former membership. Geoffrey Kongdobia didn’t begin. None of this season’s signings, in different phrases. And but the shift was nonetheless there, a mixture of previous and new. “We ‘play’ a bit extra this season however we nonetheless have the defensive side and the counter-attack,” Carrasco mentioned. There’s a spread, reliability and solidity about them that contrasts with Barcelona and Madrid, a way of mission and readability projecting them as candidates. “Atlético put on the face of champions,” wrote former participant Kiko Narváez. “Unstoppable,” AS referred to as them.
La Liga outcomes
Friday: Osasuna 1-1 Huesca. Sat: Atlético 1-0 Barcelona, Levante 1-1 Elche, Sevilla 4-2 Celta, Villarreal 1-1 Actual Madrid. Solar: Alavés 2-2 Valencia, Cádiz 0-1 Actual Sociedad, Eibar 0-0 Getafe, Granada 1-3 Valladolid. Mon: Athletic 4-0 Betis.
“The group is in good condition, and that offers us the passion, the hope and the fervour to maintain going. When there’s a communion between the concept and the execution, essentially the most lovely factor on this sport seems, which is to offer all the pieces for the workforce,” Simeone mentioned. What he wouldn’t say is that they’re candidates, nonetheless onerous everybody tried. There was one thing barely perverse, even accusatory in regards to the interrogation, the way in which the main target was as a lot on Atlético’s refusal to understand the standing thrust upon them from outdoors than on how good they’re. As a substitute, Simeone and his gamers talked “sport by sport”. Simply as they’d in 2013-14.
Effectively, most of them did. However then for one, temporary second on Saturday night time, Koke let one thing slip. “Why not dream?” he mentioned.