x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Fortunes shifting in city of Madrid

Only Barcelona and Real Madrid have won more Primera Liga titles than Atletico Madrid's nine, the last of which came with the bonus of the Copa Del Rey in 1996.

Only Barcelona and Real Madrid have won more Primera Liga titles than Atletico Madrid's nine, the last of which came with the bonus of the Copa Del Rey in 1996. Atletico, who boast some of Spain's most passionate fans, loathe living in the shadow of their more illustrious neighbours in the north of the city, but fortunes have shifted this year and as the red and white legions are currently reminding their neighbours, they have won two trophies to Real's none. And it gets better. As Spain's Primera Liga teams take a break for the Euro 2012 qualifiers after just one match, Atletico will head the table until games resume. Unlike last season when they did not win until the sixth league game and mustered a single victory in their first 11 outings, the Rojiblancos look the business. They have continued their superb form from the end of last season when they knocked Liverpool out of the Europa League at the semi-final stage. They were then deserved winners against another English side, Fulham, in the Hamburg final, which earned them a European Super Cup tie against Inter Milan last Friday in Monaco. Backed by their ever raucous support - 60,000 of whom also travelled to the Copa Del Rey final in Barcelona in May - they beat the European champions 2-0. Coach Quique Sanchez Flores deserves much of the credit. After coaching at the junior teams of Real Madrid, he began senior management at Getafe in 2003, impressing sufficiently for Valencia and then Benfica to come calling. He arrived at the Calderon last autumn, with Atleti 18th and on their way out of the Champions League without a win. The owners had a falling out and he was given only a 50/50 chance by many of still being in charge at the end of the season. He revolutionised the club and they picked up enough form to finish ninth. And, although they were the only team to beat Barca, in a thrilling league game, it was in the cups where they excelled, winning two trophies after a 14 year drought. Their league form is where there is the greatest room for improvement this season and Sanchez Flores saw his side satisfyingly demolish Sporting Gijon 4-0 in their first league game on Monday, with Diego Forlan scoring twice. Spain's fourth best supported club last season after the big two and Valencia, with average gates of 40,105, Atleti have plenty of big names up front like Forlan, Simao, Sergio Aguero and Jose Reyes, but they also have a batch of emerging Spanish youngsters who have been starring for Spain's Under 21s. In addition, Atleti appear to have their best defence in years. Warrior-like Czech right-back Tomas Ujfalusi was man-of-the-match against Sporting, with new signing Diego Godin in central defence, the World Cup semi-finalist with Uruguay a sound acquisition from Spanish rivals Villarreal. Felipe Luis, the Brazilian right-back, could be a steal from Deportivo La Coruna, if he can stay fit. When Atleti signed goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo from Valladolid last summer for ?5million (Dh23.6m), they bought Spain's most promising young stopper - not knowing they already had a better one in their ranks. David De Gea, 19, took Asenjo's place in January and has kept it ever since. Atletico have long been beset by financial profligacy, in-fighting, instability, inconsistency and ego - the legacy they inherited and absorbed from Jesus Gil, the madcap former president. Times are changing and they plan to implement a 20 per cent cut in their playing budget this season, with youthful promotions rather than extravagant imports. Can they compete with the big two? This is Atletico so something will go wrong sooner or later given that they are operating on a budget a quarter the size of their neighbours, but life's looking good in the stadium on the banks of the Manzanares river which they call home for now. sports@thenational.ae

September 12 Sporting Gijon v Mallorca Athletic Bilbao v Atletico Madrid Barcelona v Hercules Valencia v Racing Santander Real Zaragoza v Malaga Sevilla v Deportivo Getafe v Levante Villareal v Espanyol Almeria v Real Sociedad Real Madrid v Osasuna