Europa League can give Atletico Madrid and Diego Simeone that winning feeling again
- Atletico face Arsenal in the semi-finals, with the first leg at Emirates Stadium on Thursday
- Simeone's men have not won a trophy since winning the Primera Liga title in 2014
- Winners of tie face either Marseille or Red Bull Salzburg in the final on May 16 in Lyon
When Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger steps down at the end of the season, Atletico Madrid’s Diego Simeone will become the longest serving manager at a major European football club.
Only Angers’ Stephane Moulin, who took charge of the Ligue 1 side in July 2011, four months earlier than Simeone, has been in charge longer of any team in Europe’s top five leagues.
Simeone’s six and a half years pale with Wenger’s 22-year-stint, but he is already Atletico’s longest serving coach – though Luis Aragones did manage them for longer over his four spells in charge.
Simeone also has a better win rate than any other Atletico boss, one he will be keen to preserve when his side plays Arsenal in Thursday’s Europa League semi-final first leg in London.
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The return is next Thursday in Madrid between two teams who would make for a fitting final, but the winner will play Red Bull Leipzig or Marseille in Lyon on May 16 for the trophy.
Atletico and Arsenal are regular Uefa Champions League performers, yet the Spanish side started this season in Europe’s top competition before being eliminated after the group stage for the first time in five years.
Arsenal started in the Europa League for the first time after 17 consecutive seasons in the Champions League.
Thurday’s game is a sell-out, as are all 3,400 visitors’ tickets for the game in Spain. Arsenal have subsidised the cost of those tickets after Atletico charged their fans £79 (Dh355) – against the £36.50 the Spanish fans will pay on Thursday. Spanish clubs continue to fleece travelling fans with high ticket charges.
Arsenal have been beaten twice in their 12 Europa League games so far, but they have overcome Ostersund, AC Milan and CSKA Moscow en route to the semi-finals.
No team has scored more than Arsenal’s 29 goals in a competition their fans have warmed to after December’s dead rubber home game against BATE Borisov attracted Arsenal’s lowest ever home crowd at the Emirates of only 25,909.
Atletico, who reached the Champions League final in 2014 and 2016, won only one of their six group games and were beaten by Chelsea at home – still the only team to win at their new Wanda Metropolitano home.
In the Europa League, Atletico then eliminated Copenhagen, Lokomotiv Moscow and Sporting Lisbon.
Simeone, 48, remains a hero at Atletico, having helped turn them from an underachieving giant to a hard to beat, organised, major force in world football.
Atletico recruit and sell well, yet have kept a solid base of players, including locally born Atletico-supporting Koke, Gabi and Fernando Torres, who have served the club so well.
Atletico sit second in the Primera Liga and with Champions League qualification assured for next season.
Their away form has dropped and they have lost three of their last four encounters on the road, but they still have the best defence in Spain, with only 18 goals conceded in 34 matches.
Defenders Juanfran, Felipe Luis and Diego Godin have been at the club longer than Simeone, as have Koke and captain Gabi.
Atletico’s move to a new stadium has been vindicated with a 10,000 increase in average crowds and they are on for a sixth consecutive top-three finish in Spain.
Success in the 2010 Europa League competition, after they beat Liverpool in the semi-final and another English team Fulham in the Hamburg final, gave them their first trophy since a league and cup double in 1996.
Atletico also won the 2012 Europa League before graduating into Champions League regulars. Their record in the competition is a strong one and they have won 22 of their last 26 Europa League games, but, until this season, it was something Atletico used to play in.
It also might be one in which they have a better chance of winning a trophy because they cannot meet Real Madrid in the final. Real being the side that beat them in both the 2014 and 2016 Champions League finals.
And, despite Atletico’s sustained recent excellence, they have not won any silverware since that shock league title success four years ago.
Just as the FA Cup has been suited to Arsenal, the Europa League is a good fit for Atletico, even though Gabi was dismissive of it in October.
The midfielder will probably have a different opinion when he takes to the field in North London on Thursday for Atletico’s first ever meeting with Arsenal.
Updated: April 25, 2018 04:28 PM