Manager Diego Simeone 'turned around what was an underachieving sleeping giant' in bringing Atletico European success.
Improbably, Atletico Madrid are storming through Europe
With a 100 percent record in the Champions League and 11 wins from 12 games in La Liga, Atletico Madrid have been one of the revelations of European football this season.
A 4-0 hammering of Austria Vienna on Wednesday meant Atletico joined holders Bayern Munich as the only sides to have won all four of their group games and ensured simple passage into the last-16 on their return to the Champions League for the first time in four years.
Diego Simeone’s men also split traditional powerhouses Barcelona and Real Madrid in La Liga, a point behind the Catalans and five ahead of their city rivals.
However, the high they are currently riding is no flash in the pan. Since Simeone’s arrival at the club in December 2011, the man who was a star player the last time Atletico won the league back in 1995/96, has completely turned around what was an underachieving sleeping giant.
Whilst world class talents like Fernando Torres, Sergio Aguero and Diego Forlan came and went from the Vicente Calderon, the overall organisation of the club and lack of balance on the field prevented them from ever truly punching their weight over the past decade.
Simeone’s arrival brought about an instant change in fortunes. In his first six months in charge the team shot up the table to just miss out on Champions League football on the final day of the season and stormed to the Europa League by winning every single game in the knockout stage.
That was followed by more silverware as they hammered Chelsea 4-1 in the European Super Cup thanks to a Radamel Falcao hat-trick and, powered by the Colombian, they started last season in similar fashion winning 11 of their opening 13 games before being defeated, as the always did, to Real in the Madrid derby.
Simeone’s powers of motivation and tactical nous even managed to end that curse though, as Atletico eventually beat Real for the first time in 14 years at the best possible time, in the best possible scenario. A Copa del Rey final at the Santiago Bernabeu, 40,000 Atleti fans there to witness them break down the biggest psychological barrier on enemy territory.
“Before his arrival we were all a little floored because things weren’t going well, we had been fairly eliminated from the Copa del Rey by (second division) Albacete,” admitted midfielder Koke, the man christened the “new Xavi” by certain sections of the Spanish press.
“The manager arrived and he totally changed this mentality. He showed us how to have a positive mentality and since then everything has gone well.”
The continued rise of Atletico’s stock this season is arguably Simeone’s greatest achievement as they have taken on the extra rigours of Champions League football and coped with Falcao’s departure to Monaco without any sort of stumble.
Young players that he has blooded like Koke and Mario Suarez have become regulars in the Spanish squad, whilst Diego Costa’s transformation under his tutelage saw Spain and Brazil squabble for the services of the striker who has now scored 16 goals in as many games this season.
Simeone has continued to play down his side’s chances of winning La Liga, repeatedly dismissing the competition as a “boring league” which only the big two can win due to the financial disparity between them and the rest.
Therefore, it could on the biggest stage of all where Atletico truly make their mark; the Champions League.
“We trust in our coach because he knows how to draw the maximum from every one of us,” full-back Juanfran told the media ahead of the Vienna return.
“It is clear that Atletico has always been a cup team, the elimination format suits us. I am one of those that believe that the Spanish league continues to be the best, the strongest and most competitive, and perhaps it will be harder to win the league than the Champions League.”
Unbeaten in their last four meetings with Barca and Madrid, they have already shown they can compete with the continent’s best when the distance is reduced to two games rather than 38.