“It isn’t always the best that win, but the ones who believe they will win” - Diego Simeone
Diego Simeone doesn’t seem like the type of manager who relishes in his own perceived wisdom, but when he said this a couple of weeks back, he encapsulated perfectly what sits at the core of his Atletico Madrid team, who are now on the cusp of creating history.
Let’s be clear – Atletico are a very, very good team, and they have a number of very good players. Self-belief alone doesn’t split the giants who have monopolized La Liga, and it certainly isn’t enough to topple them – yet that’s what Atletico are about to do; they are now just two wins away from clinching the title. And that’s not all, as a result tonight against Chelsea in the Champions League semi-final 2nd leg will see Atletico reach their first European Cup final since their one and only appearance in 1974, and set up the first ever between city rivals. A league and European Cup double is a stunning achievement in and of itself – but when your club operates on a fraction of the budget of its rivals, it’s really something special. Atletico are turning all the tables with a confidence and belligerence that Spain and Europe don’t quite know how to handle.
That is where Simeone has gone to work with this team, transforming them from a club and team all too aware of their ‘secondary status’. into one that simply refuses to be defined by it. But Simeone isn’t simply shuffling about the dressing room geeing his players up until they’re beating their chests. It’s a far more calculated and precise method of football which has brought them this far. Atletico have lost out in the possession stakes on more occasions than not this season, a cardinal sin in an era where the ball is king. Simeone sets his team up to control space rather than the ball – you have it, but you have it where we say you can have it. It’s a compelling approach which stifles and frustrates opponents, more sheepdog than bus. It’s in those scraps and tussles over grass that Atletico have exerted their sheer will, determination and belief that they will come out on top.
Should Atletico prevail on one or both fronts over the next few weeks, delirium will soon be curtailed as the darker realities of Atletico’s success will come to the fore. Through 2013, only six members of their playing squad were fully owned by Atletico, the others loanees or players hosted as the club under co-ownership agreements. Some others – simply not paid for, playing in the red and white stripes for now, but maybe not for long. Atletico are a club on a financial precipice, and whilst they have managed to find some international investment lately (hint – look at their shirt) it won’t be enough when the big boys come cherry picking in the summer. Courtois, one of the world’s very best keepers, will need replacing at least, as it appears he is heading back to Chelsea, and others are sure to go also. Simeone has already said he will not stand in the way of Diego Costa's potential exit.
It feels like it’s now or never for Atletico Madrid – and they most certainly believe this is their moment.