On the outside
They're doing it very quietly but Atletico Madrid are level on points with Barcelona and finishing third should now be the bare minimum. Tim Stannard looks at what's going on at Vicente Calderón and salutes Diego Simeone.
Last Updated: 01/11/12 2:31pm
Now if Atlético Madrid were an English team, their spleen-venting supporters would be angrily bombarding message boards and harassing phone-in shows complaining bitterly that a disgracefully biased media clearly have it in for their club, aren't paying them nearly enough attention and, most crucially at all, aren't taking them seriously as title contenders.
This clearly hasn't been happening in the land of ham - Atletico have been based in Madrid long enough to know their place. The other reason why such a campaign of paranoia isn't being cranked up to 10 is that the last thing the Rojiblanco fans want is for everyone to start seeing them as rightful challengers of the league title alongside Real Madrid and Barcelona, despite their lofty position as joint leaders at the top of the table with around a quarter of the season gone.
What normally occurs when such talk begins is that things go horribly wrong for the club with a previously all-too-fragile bubble of self-confidence bursting. In Atlético's perfect world, the side would continue on its fantastic streak of 22 victories without defeat in competitive games and eight wins and one draw in la Liga, with the last of those successes being a 3-1 victory over Osasuna in a stuffed and sexy Vicente Calderón on Sunday evening.
However, Atlético Madrid will be finding it hard to continue on their merry way with some kind of cloak of invisibility protecting them from title-winning talk. After all, Sunday's win equalled the run from the double-winning campaign of 1995/1996 and sees Atlético Madrid on course for their highest league finish since that season.
Manager Diego Simeone was part of the squad of that historic season for the Calderón club and is ring-leader of the pack of those not wanting anyone to get carried away with a team matching Barcelona game-for-game and having given Champions League-winning Chelsea a heck of a caning on a spare Friday in August.
After Thursday's Europa League win over Académica, the immensely scary coach dismissed talk of winning streaks to declare that "records are for history and journalists - We live for tomorrow". With other managers you'd suspect that they are secretly gathering a scrapbook of their successes, but that's not the case with the tattoo-laden Argentinean, whose core strength is his ability to motivate his players, build a collective and most importantly of all terrify his footballers to death if they don't give the mythical 120% in every game.
Another former Atlético player, Paolo Futre, suggests in Monday's Marca that Atlético's progress this year is completely counter-intuitive. 'Where is the logic in spending millions and not having success and then spending practically nothing and being joint leaders?' Only a million euro was spent over the summer on a defender who has barely played whereas €19m was made in sales in an attempt to make a dent in the club's debt with the taxman. That debt stands at over €200m - a testament to the cash splurged on the likes of Elias, Sinama-Pongolle and Reyes to name but of few of many expensive failures in recent seasons.
Aside from Falcao, who scored his tenth league goal of the season in the victory over Osasuna, Atlético's squad this year is a modest one, but the strongest seen for some time in terms of quality. Indeed, it has largely been the 'back-up' team that has seen the side progressing so well in Europe. Thibaut Courtois, in his second year on loan from Chelsea, is proving that the London club has a very bright future once Petr Cech is poked out of the picture.
In front of the Belgian is a back four that's free of the normal insane self-destruction of recent seasons, which saw countless late goals being given away, largely by Diego Godín (who single-handedly prevented a Champions League finish last season with a series of baffling bungles). The midfield is well-organised and disciplined under the supervision of the experienced Gabi, who returned to his home team after four seasons in exile with Zaragoza.
Arda Turan has slotted into the huge playmaking hole left by Diego Ribas, arguably the team's most influential footballer last season, whilst cameo performances along the way from new arrival Christian Rodríguez and Raúl García, back from a spell at Osasuna, have ensured that the club is not as reliant on Falcao as the statistics may suggest. "This team has heart, energy and strength," says right-back Juanfran, a footballer who has pushed his way into the Spain squad as a full-back despite joining as a substitute right-winger two seasons ago.
The toughest test so far in la Liga for Atlético this season has been against Málaga, a match the Rojiblancos won, with games against Real Madrid and Barcelona not coming up until December. But it's Atleti's consistency against the meat-and-veg of la Primera that has been key this year - the scrappy victories against Valladolid, Espanyol and Real Sociedad. "They know how to play like a small team," noted admiring Osasuna manager Jose Luis Mendilibar after his team's defeat.
At the same point last year, Atlético Madrid had already dropped points to Osasuna, Sevilla, Granada, Mallorca and Athletic Bilbao to leave the capital city side with just nine points, 16 less than the team has now. It was a record that eventually lead to the sacking of Gregorio Manzano over Christmas and the appointment of Simeone, who has only been at the club for ten months, but it feels like 10 years having firmly imprinted his determined, no-nonsense personality into the DNA of a team that has always been riven by despite and squabbles from the dressing-room to the board room.
Atlético Madrid may be able to play and plot like a small team but it remains to see if they have a big team's aspirations. Third place and a return to the Champions League must now be the side's minimum goal. However, the performance and progress of the team have now given the players permission to think of something other than merely the next match - despite the strict orders of their manager - no matter how much the supporters may want to avoid it at all costs.
This article first appeared on Football365