Diego Simeone’s side trounced city rivals Real Madrid in the UEFA Super Cup earlier this month.
Little under a year ago, Atletico Madrid looked a club in complete disarray, not due to their tarnished reputation thanks to the transfer ban, but also because of a seeming lack of harmony within the squad. The transfer ban imposed on them by UEFA had a negative impact on the squad and it looked like that shock had a ripple effect on the mentality of the players, who suddenly looked elsewhere to gain success.
Antoine Griezmann, who has been the face of their brand for years now, hesitantly opted to stay for another year with them, but made it clear that he will get his high-profile move in the summer of 2018. Their leader from the back Diego Godin, whose contract was running out, was threatening to let his £18m release clause come into effect and allow some other side to take him away on the cheap. Another pivotal star in Jan Oblak was on the radar of some big European clubs, as it seemed like he’d be priced away in the summer as well.
Los Rojiblancos dropped to their lowest eb after being eliminated in the group stages of the Champions League, suffering horrible defeats to Chelsea and Roma, despite being odds-on favourites to top the group. But, it seemed like the drop down to the Europa League was actually a blessing in disguise and it was after that fall that Diego Simeone‘s fantastic ability to inspire his squad came to the fore.
Unlike other sides who didn’t really value the Europa League, Simeone took it very seriously and made sure his side did not lose focus during the games. They defeated the likes of Nice, Lokomotiv Moscow, and Sporting Club relatively easily before facing a daunting task in Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal, who seemed set to win the title themselves. But, Simeone put on a defensive masterclass to record a clinical win over the Gunners. Los Rojiblancos would then go on to absolutely dominate Marseille in the final, which finally allowed the manager to breathe a sigh of relief and get his hands on the European trophy he’s beien vying for years.
Watch: Atletico were very impressive in their last competitive game
That impressive Europa League win might’ve seemed like a walk in the park for a club of Atletico’s stature, but it was extremely crucial for them as it helped them get out of that shell they were stuck in since losing two Champions League finals to rivals Real Madrid. Moreover, it helped the new boys get a taste of glory, which should give them the motivation to challenge at the top of La Liga this season.
The Europa win also showed Atletico’s ambition to challenge on all fronts and proved to the wantaway players that the team had it in them to win big trophies. It seemingly inspired the likes of Griezmann and Godin, who both rejected big clubs in Barcelona and Manchester United to get bumper contracts and tie themselves with the club for the foreseeable future, while Jan Oblak also rejected a move to Chelsea to stay in Madrid.
But, something which Simeone has managed to do is create a sense of love and harmony in the squad over the past few seasons. He’s managed to get the players so attached to each other, the fans and the club in general that they don’t necessarily want to leave either. It’s because of this sense of belonging that we’ve seen Atletico work so hard in their games and never give under the pressure the opponents put on them. This in-built passion which Simeone has created in the nature of these players will be pivotal for them this season and will fire them up to not let their performance levels slip like last season.
Unlike last season when Atletico only managed to secure a big-money move for Diego Costa in January, they’ve made the most use of their freedom to bring in players this campaign, with some impressive acquisitions. Simeone has further boosted his attack, with the likes of Thomas Lemar and Gelson Martins both having the potential to light up the Wanda Metropolitano. Lemar, a World Cup winner with France, is already well-synced with Griezmann and looked in prime shapein Atletico’s Super Cup win over Real Madrid. He threatened with his movement and creativity and looks to be the perfect player to unleash Costa and Griezmann this season.
Watch: Lemar will light up La Liga this season
Martins and Nikola Kalinic are probably going to be used in rotation, but are both vital acquisitions to improve the depth in attack in the squad. Atletico are already rock-solid defensively, with the central partnership of Godin and Jose Gimenez being almost impenetrable for teams and World Cup winner Lucas Hernandez adding more strength to their backline. The departures of Sime Vrsaljiko and Gabi will hurt the fans, but they won’t be felt that badly. Their replacements in Santiago Arias and Rodri will be guided well by Godin and Koke, who became a leader in his own right for Simeone’s side last season.
With their emphatic 4-2 Super Cup win over rivals Real Madrid, Atletico proved how much they’ve evolved in recent months. They’ve gotten that killer instinct thanks to the brilliant Costa, who scored a brace and absolute terrorized Real’s defense on the day. Atletico also seem to have that in-built winning mentality and even without someone like Griezmann (who was substituted) they went onto mount a come-back after being 2-1 down and win the match. This season seems to be a mirror of the 2013-14 season, with Atletico having the right balance and world-class players to go all the way.
Los Rojiblancos look to be much better equipped compete with Real Madrid and Barcelona, as they have the players who can give them the edge in the crucial games against the two clubs. Barcelona and Real will be at each other’s throats, as usual, to determine who is the best team in Spain, but like they did in 2014, Atletico could pull off another trump card this season.
Simeone’s side weren’t the favourites to win the title in the 2013-14 season at all, but their persistence and mental strength allowed them to keep their rivals at bay to pip them to a historic championship win. Atletico love to play the underdogs in title races and because of their current squad’s ability to win big matches and trophies, they could finally pose a serious title challenge this season.
Many things have changed in the course of a year for Atletico, who went from losing their top players to becoming one of the strongest sides in Europe. Of course, the UEFA Europa League victory paid dividends in bringing back the belief in the squad, but Simeone’s faith in his players was also vindicated over the summer.
With their big guns all hell-bent on bringing long-lost glory back to the Red side of Madrid, it seems like this season could be one when Los Rojablancos throws away the tag of “bottlers” to yet again become the ultimate underdogs of Spanish football.