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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 September 2018

Barcelona defeat to serve as cautionary tale for Europa League title favourites Atletico Madrid

Atleti are one of continent's best teams but they will be wary of Sporting Lisbon ahead of quater-final, second-leg tie

Atletico Madrid have players of the calibre of Antoine Griezmann, left, and Diego Costa, second from left. Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno / Getty Images
Atletico Madrid have players of the calibre of Antoine Griezmann, left, and Diego Costa, second from left. Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno / Getty Images

Nobody was surprised when Atletico Madrid were named as one of the first five teams alongside Manchester United and Bayern Munich to play in July’s International Champions Cup, the pre-season tournament in the United States which the world’s biggest football teams enter.

Atletico, the team that lost their nerve so often in the 90s that they were known as pupas - losers - have held it throughout a glorious noughties when they have consistently been one of the best teams in Europe.

The competition which started the success was the 2010 Europa League, when they defeated Fulham in Hamburg. Diego Simeone’s arrival a year later toughened them up and made them harder to beat.

Years of smart strategy in the transfer market, the influence of home-grown Atletico-supporting players such as Koke, Saul, Fernando Torres and Gabi, and some rare stability in the boardroom have helped Atleti become everything they were not.

They hold on to their best players for longer because those players are happy to play for one of the best teams in the world and live in Madrid, a fine city. In the summer of 2011, David de Gea was sold when he was 20 and Sergio Aguero was 22.

Now, Atletico offload the players they want – out of favour Yannick Carrasco and Nicolas Gaitan were sold to the Chinese Super League in February for US$52 million (Dh191m).

Torres announced this week that he will leave the club at the end of the season. The news prompted much sadness from Atleti fans, but the striker has had two excellent spells at the club and was effective when many considered him finished after he returned from England.

Torres, 34, has featured in 34 games so far this season and scored seven goals, but his 1,280 minutes in the red-and-white shirt pale when compared to Antoine Griezmann’s 3,249 or Koke’s 3,318.

Torres has not started a league game since January and it would be understandable if he accepted a large contract to play in China or the United States, especially after seeing how well another former Atleti striker - David Villa - has done in the MLS.

On Thursday night, they have a good chance to reach another Europa League semi-final. Though Atletico will be wary after seeing Barcelona’s 4-1 lead overturned in Rome, they are still favourites to protect their 2-0 lead against Sporting in Lisbon.

Those goals were scored by Koke and Griezmann, who continues to be linked with a move away from the club he has served so well over 200 appearances.

This is turning into a good season for Atletico, who are second in the Primera Liga and four points clear of their fourth-placed neighbours Real Madrid who they drew with in the Bernabeu on Sunday after Jan Oblack’s heroics in their goal.

Atletico have not lost any of their 15 league games at their new stadium. Average crowds are 10,000 up on last season to 52,037. They kept hold of Griezmann, saw their transfer embargo out and have welcomed Diego Costa back to where he is idolised.

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Manager Diego Simeone has overseen plenty of success at Atletico Madrid. Gabriel Bouys / AFP
Manager Diego Simeone has overseen plenty of success at Atletico Madrid. Gabriel Bouys / AFP

The Uefa Champions League was the one disappointment from this season, with Simeone’s side winning only one of their six group games. Chelsea also became the first team to win at Atletico’s new stadium, meaning they failed to make the knock out stage of the Champions League for the first time in five years.

They have reached the final twice, losing to Real, the team who knocked them out of the semi-finals last season and the quarter-finals in 2015.

Given that their European runs have ended in defeat to Real in four successive seasons and that Zinedine Zidane's men are still in the Champions League, the Europa League offers a more likely alternative for a trophy.

Atletico’s win in 2010 came after they also failed to get out of the Champions League group which they also shared with Chelsea. They won the competition again in 2012, beating Athletic Bilbao in an all-Spanish final.

Spanish clubs have dominated the Europa League, winning the competition eight times since 2000. The next best - England - has provided three winners including the reigning champions Manchester United. Atletico are the only Spanish team left in the last eight and they are the favourites to win the competition in Lyon.

But as Barcelona found out on Tuesday, Atletico’s elevated noughties’ status could count for little in a knockout tie.

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