After winning their first La Liga title in 18 years and reaching their second Champions League final – only to lose 4-1 (AET) to near rivals Real Madrid – it’s hard to imagine Atletico Madrid being under-rated. But after watching challengers Barcelona and Real splash multi-millions this summer on the likes of Luis Suarez and James Rodriquez respectively, while Atletico themselves lost talisman Diego Costa, it appears the world of football is ready to write off Los Colchoneros all over again.
I believe this will be a huge mistake.
Atletico are a gritty side; they are defensively sound with the ability to counter attack at great pace. They pose a strong set piece threat from the brutal defensive duo of Diego Godin and Miranda and their high pressure intensity, in-your-face mentality and never-say-die spirit makes them extremely difficult to break down.
In Diego Simeone, Atleti possess one of the best young managers in world football. He took over in late 2011 with the club struggling in La Liga and having just exited the Copa Del Rey at the hands of third-tier Albacete-Balompie, he transformed their fortunes dramatically in an inconceivable way.
The season ended with Atletico being crowned UEFA Europa League champions after a comfortable 3-0 victory over Spanish rivals Athletic Club Bilbao in Bucharest and a few months later Simeone’s Radamel Falcao inspired side dichotomised Champions League winners Chelsea 4-1 in Monaco to win the UEFA Super Cup. That same season, he led Los Rojiblancos to a third placed finish in La Liga, their highest final position since they last won the league title in 1996.
Last term the Madrid side won their first title for 18 years and reached the Champions League final undefeated, with a phenomenal defensive record of only conceding 6 goals in the 12 games, before losing to fierce rivals Real Madrid. The 90 points collected in the league surpassed the title-winning 87 from 1996 and alongside the achievements in both cup competitions, this represented the most successful season in the club’s history. This was all done having lost talismanic striker Falcao to Monaco for £50million in the close season.
Simeone is a fiery character for sure. He’s lively, animated, and irate more often than not. Explosive, volatile, hot-headed, the list could go on, but most importantly - he's a perfectionist. He believes in his methods despite their unconventionality. He is tremendously motivated himself and always sends his side out fired up. In spite of being a total nightmare for officials, his passion is what drives him – the fuel for his success.
Atletico may have surprised many onlookers last season – in fact almost everyone assumed they would fold in the La Liga title race and capitulate in the same manner that Liverpool did in England – but what surprises me most is that everyone seems keen to make the same mistake again this time around.
This is not a side to underrate. Write them off at your peril.
If anything, they look stronger this season. Their close-season summer business has been nothing short of superb in my opinion.
The loss of goal-crazy striker Diego Costa to Chelsea for £32million would look concerning at first but Atletico immediately replaced the Brazilian-born brute with Bayern Munich’s Mario Mandzukic for nearly half the price at £17million. The Croat has experience winning Europe’s major competition as well as domestic triumphs galore for Munich and a goal record of 48 in 88 for the German champions is a fantastic return. His physicality is much like Costa so Mandzukic is already a like-for-like direct replacement.
Much-sought after French wing wizard Antoine Griezmann has made the £24million move from Real Sociedad to replace the outgoing David Villa and as Griezmann has the potential to reach the heights of European football, I think this strongly represents an improvement to their attacking department. Filipe Luis followed Costa to Chelsea for £16million and Guilherme Siqueira was brought in to replace him, a talented left-back who has been long tipped to move to one of Europe’s elite teams.
The loss of loan star goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois back to parent club Chelsea could be the biggest loss of all but Miguel Angel Moya has looked comfortable in his first few showings.
The key for the Vicente Calderon side has been keeping their main midfield trio of Koke, Raul Garcia and Gabi. Koke was the only one really linked heavily with a move away but turned down advances to stay and his partnership with his two captains is essential as the three work in unison in the Atletico engine room, providing a sturdy foundation and a great connection between their compact defence and inventive attack.
Vicente Calderon is their fortress, too. Last season Atletico won 15 of their 19 home leagues, drawing the other 4 and scoring 49 in the process. The Los Colchoneros fans are a rapturous bunch and when in full voice, it can be a very intimidating place to go to. With the move to the brand-spanking new 70,000-seater Estadio La Peinata on the horizon in 2016, the club is certainly on the up after some rather troubling seasons financially off-the-field.
On Friday night, Atletico won the Super Cup with a 1-0 win over near rivals Real Madrid, 2-1 on aggregate. Simeone was sent off for patting the fourth official on the head and sarcastically applauding the referee but Mandzukic’s first goal for his new club will do him a world of good and endear him to the Atleti faithful.
The performance spoke volumes about the desire that Atletico have that I’ve touched upon above. They nullified Real’s attacking prowess, leaving Gareth Bale, James Rodriquez and Cristiano Ronaldo often isolated throughout.
Barcelona are undoubtedly about to go through a transitional phase, reshaping their side under Luis Enrique with the likes of Luis Suarez and Ivan Rakitic. On the other hand, Real look threatening but susceptible defensively, plus - can they fit Ronaldo, Bale, Rodriquez and Benzema into one system too?
With all of that said, it seems that the improving Atletico’s spot at the top will still be theirs to fight for. They proved in the Super Cup win over Real that they aren’t going to be pushovers and they are perfectly capable of defending the title they worked so hard to snatch from Spain’s “big two”. The win was a firm reminder that Atletico are here to stay and they will be keen to show that last year’s success won’t be a one-season-wonder.
Everyone seems to be ready to write off Atletico all over again. Well, I won’t be one of them.
By Neil Vincent - Manchester United/Bristol Rovers fan - @