x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

With all due respect to Atletico, Primera Liga likely to return to a duopoly

Atletico have spent more than €100m so far, their record for a close season, and remain formidable, but they simply cannot compete with the might and wealth of the big two and will start as a distant third favourite for the title.

French forward Antoine Griezmann is one of the big names signed by Atletico Madrid.  John MacDougall / AFP
French forward Antoine Griezmann is one of the big names signed by Atletico Madrid. John MacDougall / AFP

For the first time since Valencia were champions a decade ago, Spain’s Primera Liga begins without Barcelona or Real Madrid as champions.

Atletico Madrid did what most in football thought was impossible – they broke the domination of the big two. Even the organisers of the Primera Liga kept the championship trophy in their Madrid offices rather than present it to Atletico after they had won their first title since 1996 in a win-or-bust final match against Barcelona in Camp Nou.

The big two operate on budgets four times that of Atletico, a selling club who reluctantly accept the best offers for their best players on an ­annual basis.

Atletico invest their spoils well, especially in strikers, and they make clever use of loan signings as with Chelsea’s Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.

They also have a hugely determined coach in Diego Simeone, who is not only a hero on the Calderon terraces for his contribution as a player but also the finest emerging coach in world football.

His record with Atletico is incredible and, to the delight of the 47,000 average crowds who watch Atletico play until they move to their new stadium in 2016, he has decided to stay – though he has warned fans that Real Madrid are even stronger this season.

The Argentine is a realist who plays the role of underdog to his club’s advantage. Players adore Simeone and want to give their all for him.

Unity is a strength at a club once famed for instability and infighting for, as Simeone points out, “without it we will be nothing”.

Simeone, 44, is more than a sabre-rattling motivator, though. Along with sporting director Jose Luis Caminero, Atletico recruit well.

The wily pair know Barcelona and Madrid cannot buy every talented player and that signing footballers is not an exact science.

Atletico are close enough to the top of football’s food chain to pay very well and sign top players.

Even though they lost Diego Costa, Filipe Luis, David Villa, Courtois and fringe players Adrian Lopez and Diego Ribas in the close season, they have recruited well in signing Bayern Munich striker Mario Mandzukic, the 28-year-old Croatian preferring to be the No 1 striker at the Calderon than the No 3 in ­Bavaria. He cost €22 million (Dh107m).

Atletico’s other big signing was French winger Antoine Griezmann, a €30m deal from Real ­Sociedad.

They also replaced Courtois by spending €16m on Benfica goalkeeper Jan Oblak. Atletico have spent more than €100m so far, their record for a close season, and remain formidable, but they simply cannot compete with the might and wealth of the big two and will start as a distant third favourite for the title.

Real Madrid’s fans stomached Atletico winning the title because they were sated by success in the one trophy they treasure above all others, the Uefa Champions League. That they beat Atletico in the Lisbon final made it sweeter and, in their eyes, asserted their hegemony.

A Copa del Rey triumph against Barcelona did similar, leaving the Catalans as the only one of the leading three (Athletic Bilbao were 17 points behind Barca and Madrid, who both finished on 87 points) disappointed.

After being magnanimous enough to applaud new champions Atletico in their own home, Barca fans booed their team off the field at the final game of the season.

They are hoping for a new Barca under former player and B team manager Luis Enrique, plus a considerable roster of new signings including Luis Suarez from Liverpool, Ivan Rakitic from Sevilla and two new goalkeepers – Ter Stegen from Monchengladbach and Claudio Bravo from Real Sociedad.

Barca have spent €153m on new players in the close season, more than Atletico’s entire budget for the season, and are threatening to spend more. As they might, for Fifa have banned them from signing players in 2015.

There may be only three teams in the race for the title, but that is one more than anyone would have said a year ago.

sports@thenational.ae

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