x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Atletico Madrid are a class apart from their neighbours

Often overshadowed by their more wealthy city rivals the men at the Vicente Calderon are proving there is another horse in the Spanish title race, writes Andy Mitten from Madrid.

Atletico Madrid's striker Radamel Falcao, centre, has scored 45 goals in 56 games since his €40 million move from Porto in 2011. Juan Carlos Hidalgo / EPA
Atletico Madrid's striker Radamel Falcao, centre, has scored 45 goals in 56 games since his €40 million move from Porto in 2011. Juan Carlos Hidalgo / EPA

Football fans queue for sandwiches as the sun sets beyond Madrid's Manzanares river. Faces of former Atletico Madrid players are plastered on the shop front such as "Rey David" - King David de Gea, who left the club in 2011.

There is Sergio "Kun" Aguero and Diego Forlan too, plus the famous 1996 double-winning team. They remember their heroes well at the Vicente Calderon and understand why they leave for bigger contracts, even if they do not like it.

It is a different world from Real Madrid's home, which sits off the leafy Castellana on the other side of the tracks. The Bernabeu has heaters under the roofs of the stands. At the Calderon, there is no roof on three sides of the stadium.

The Bernabeu is surrounded by upscale restaurants, but across the city in the working class neighbourhood near Atletico, faded images of footballers are afforded space in shop fronts.

Atletico did not exist in the past, though. Their fraying home may be in need of investment - which is unlikely as they hope to move to an as yet unbuilt new home in part of Madrid's 2020 Olympic stadium in 2016 - but the team are very much in the present.

The reigning Europa League holders and European Super Cup winners, they are second in the Primera Liga, four points clear of their more glamorous neighbours.

There is also space for contemporary heroes such as Radamel Falcao and Mario on the flags and T-shirts on sale around the ground and Atletico fans are happy with their lot as they make their way to see their team take on Rubin Kazan in a Europa League tie.

They travel in confidence - their last defeat in a first leg of a European game was in 1999. Their record in their last eight Europa League qualifiers reads W10, D5, L1.

Things do not go to plan. Despite the sustained and vocal Vamos Atleti chants (and, shamefully, the odd monkey noise when a black opposing player touches the ball) from the Frente Ultras behind the goal, Atletico lose 2-0. The second goal comes in the last minute when the whole team push for an equaliser including the goalkeeper. That leaves them exposed and they concede.

Diego Simeone, the coach, is surprisingly sanguine in the cramped press room after the match, stating that his team will attack in the second leg in Russia.

His players say the same, they could hardly say that they aim to lose the tie, but while they get a 1-0 win in Moscow, it is not enough and the holders bow out in a major surprise.

It is an annoyance for Atletico, who have won the competition twice in the last three years, but it does not sour a remarkable season for a team who have won all 14 league games at home and, with Sunday's 1-0 win against an Espanyol side who had won six of their previous seven matches, already matched last season's points total.

Despite the truism in Spain that the Primera Liga is a two-horse race, it is Atletico who sit second in the league - as they have all season.

To outsiders that is a shock, to Atletico it is how it should be. They have long boasted top-class players, as befitting their status as Spain's third biggest team.

Valencia and Athletic Bilbao may be ahead of them in the respected all-time league table, but Atletico attract bigger crowds and have won more league titles than both, although the last was in 1996, the one before in 1977.

The seventies was a golden era when the Rojiblancos (red and whites) won three league titles, two Copa del Reys, drew the 1974 European Cup final (before losing a replay to Bayern Munich) and won the Intercontinental Cup. Atletico have huge support. When they reached the 2010 Copa del Rey final, they took over 60,000 fans to the final, twice that of their opponents Sevilla.

The 2010 finalists meet again tonight in the semi-final second leg in Andalusia. It is 2-1 to Atletico after a wild first leg in which three players were sent off and all three goals were scored from the penalty spot. The winners face Barcelona or Real Madrid in the final.

Atletico's current run of success is largely attributed to the management of Simeone and the goals of Falcao, a €40 million (Dh192m) signing from Porto in 2011 who has scored 45 goals in 56 games. Only Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have netted more since.

Atletico are hard working and mirror Simeone's style and conviction as a player. Convincing victories over sides such as Chelsea have also made them confident.

"We have three [European] titles in two years, it helps you grow as a group," said the midfielder Mario, 26 this week, who plays and looks like a young Pep Guardiola. Mario is much improved and can function as a holding or box-to-box midfielder. He was recently called up for his first full Spain honour in the friendly against Uruguay in Qatar.

"Trophies win respect from other teams and other people," said Mario, who played for Spain at every level from Under 16 to Under 21. "We have the best team in the three years that I've been here.

"I've played with Simao, Aguero, Forlan and [Jose] Reyes, but the team we have now is the best. You look at the bench and we have players who could play in any team in the league."

Barcelona and Real Madrid fans may raise their eyebrows at that, but Atletico's workers make the most of their talents. Their first XI is settled and boasts the joint best defence in the league - that was the first thing Simeone sorted out when he arrived in December 2011. Such has been his impact, he will sign a new four-year contract this week.

"He [Simeone] explains everything very good in training," said Mario. "He doesn't want anybody to relax and that's very good. We are very happy with him."

Nailing Falcao down to a new contract will not be so easy when the richest clubs in the world want him.

"He's hungry for the goal, but he wants to improve in every game," said Mario, who, while being a manager's favourite, was also dropped for a month for not obeying Simeone's instructions earlier this season.

Simeone is an intense grafter. He has little time for jokes like his predecessor Gregorio Manzano, nor does he give the freedom Manzano afforded his players on or off the pitch. Work is work.

Simeone's team are aggressive and, like a side managed by Joaquin Capparos or Marcelo Bielsa, they do not relax. They make life uncomfortable for other teams as they keep pushing, especially when they lose the ball. This style of play requires supreme fitness, they take few risks, yet exploit every set piece.

To their critics, Atletico are direct and predictable with little creativity. They use their full-backs to get the ball wide to Turkey's Arda Turan or the Uruguayan Cristian Rodriguez who crosses for Falcao. This is true, but it works.

They also boast some fine talents such as the 21-year-old Belgian goalkeeper Thiabut Courtois, who is on loan from Chelsea. He excels in the air and is a perfect replacement for De Gea, now at Manchester United.

Atletico's defence of Juanfran, Diego Godin, Joao Miranda and Felipe Luis is the most settled in the league. Luis gets forward and crosses with his sublime left foot. He recently won his first Brazilian cap.

Miranda is another Brazil international, strong and reliable. The Uruguayan Godin has excellent anticipation and aggression. The full-back Juanfran was a winger who Simeone has turned into a technically excellent defender who pushes forward. He was part of Spain's victorious Euro 2012 squad.

Mario is supported in the middle by Gabi, the captain and Simeone's man on the pitch. Tiago Mendes, formerly of Chelsea, Juventus and Porto, is tall and has presence, or Koke plays when Atletico risk a more attacking dimension.

The Turkey international Turan is used with success on the left, while Diego Costa is a fleet-heeled striker who plays out of position on the right.

Both feed the ball to the main man Falcao, who despite only being 5ft 9ins tall, is so strong that he can shield the ball from two opponents and take them out of the game. Unlike the rest of the team, there is beauty in this beast's play.

Atletico have been fortunate with injuries, although they have quality such as the striker Adrian in reserve. They have also been improving season on season, with successive league finishes of ninth, seventh and fifth since 2010. In that time, they have also excelled in Europe, playing more games than any other Spanish side.

Atletico are resigned to losing their best players, but there is not a club in world football who enjoys so much success despite continually losing their finest talents.

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