Unai Emery is back in Spain and this time in charge of a stuttering Sevilla team which spectacularly beat Real Madrid at the start of the season but has then faded away. The reason I say he’s back in Spain is because of course he was the Valencia coach until last season, at the end of which he was sacked. For coming 3rd! And for the 3rd season running too, despite losing his best players year after year, namely Davids Silva and Villa and Juan Mata. In any other league that would be more than enough to keep him in charge, even get a raise maybe. But Valencia had hit the glass ceiling. They couldn’t do better. To beat the Big 2 and break their dominance of the top 2 spots in La Liga was a step too far. It simply could not be done. The financial muscle combined with the vulgar riches of talent they have at their disposal means that no team in Spain other than those 2 realistically set the target of being crowned champions.
This is where the gravity of what Atletico Madrid have achieved so far this season begins to dawn on you. Until far too long in the season people kept dismissing them as an ‘early’ season spark who would fade away eventually. As recently as the first match day of December, when they had meekly lost another derby to their local rivals, the slightly more well known Real Madrid, were they still a “flash in the pan”. A subsequent loss to the imperious Catalans too contributed to the general sentiment that they were very good, but not quite that good. But the Rojiblancos haven’t been handed a copy of the script. They refuse to go away. 10 wins out of 10 at the Vicente Calderon have seen them not only hold on to second place in the table, but even consolidate it with a 7 point lead over the stumbling Real. Its been fun to watch too, with Diego Simeone at the helm of things, a few talented individuals and one Radamel Falcao.
Atletico have had a long list of managers in the recent past. When the club President publicly declared his support for the manager was about the time he was expected to start looking for a new job. Simeone was brought in in December 2011. As an ex-player he understood to a certain extent the nature of the club and the team. He soon began to build the team in his own image. Resilient and gritty but lethal. With the acquisition of Falcao the blow of losing Sergio Aguero was more than compensated for. Atletico always seemed to have a great team on paper but somehow could never translate that into performances and results. Simeone found a way and prospered.
Having guided them to Europa League and European Super Cup success, they started the current season extremely strongly, briefly even topping the table. A lot was made last season about Real Madrid having the possibility of winning the league title without having to beat Barcelona. A similar case can be made for Atletico and second place so far. Their home form is the best in the league and both their remaining games against the traditional giants are at home. If they can get some points in those games, and with the way Real Madrid seem to have thrown in the towel in the league to pursue other fantasies, it seems second place for them can be a realistic goal. Simeone has been the key figure here, not having to deal with the constant threat of losing his job. So far, it has been smooth sailing, relatively, and it remains to be seen how they react if and when they do hit a bad patch. That will be the true test of this team, but Simeone has shown that he is more than capable of motivating his players to achieve greater success.
Key Players, other than Falcao
Felipe Luis has been immense at left back. He’s technically sound and has been a great acquisition for the team. His importance was probably most obvious in the disastrous Madrid derby where he was ruled out at the last minute and Juanfran had to switch to the left. The match was and still remains one of the biggest let-downs of the season but Atletico were exposed with their defense thrown off balance by the Brazilian’s exclusion. Further forward, Arda Turan is the one providing the attacking impetus to the team. The Turk has had a great season playing wide on the left contributing with 4 goals and 6 assists in the league so far. While the most glamorous of Atletico’s forwards is obviously Falcao, Diego Costa and Adrian Lopez have also played important parts in shouldering the scoring responsibilities. Adrian especially is a great young talent and played alongside Juan Mata in the European Championship winning under 21 Spain side.
Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and defender Diego Godin have also been an integral part of keeping scorers at bay, with the second best defensive record in the league. Only Malaga have conceded fewer goals than them.
Incredible Achievement but Job only Half Done
Overall, Atletico have found a rhythm that has previously only been associated with Barcelona and Real Madrid. Maybe they’ve stolen it from the latter who are having monumental problems in the league, failing to win as many as 8 matches already so far. At half time in the season, Atletico are well and truly contenders to finish second. The title is far from decided and Barcelona have had a troublesome February in the past few seasons where injuries and fatigue seem to start catching up with them, yet it seems very difficult for anyone but them to win it. But while the world has been focusing on the steamroller from Catalunya or the circus at the Bernebeu (with a fun new story emerging almost every other day), Atletico have kept up the pace. Without much of the media glare and most of the money that the other two have, they have built a team that is genuinely feared. Nobody wants to play them. Not even Barcelona.
While Simeone has built a formidable side, it would be very easy for them to get carried away with their ‘achievements’ so far by say, reading this flattering piece and resting on their laurels. They need to remain grounded and realize that they have to do it all again in 2013 and understand that second place in Spain commands a lot more respect if it doesn’t go to one of them. Its so much more than just a Champions League place. The second half of the season will no doubt be tougher with a greater pressure building on them with each passing week. The expectations will be greater and so will the reward. They still have the Europa League and Copa del Rey to look forward to, but it would be doing a great disservice to Simeone and his men if they didn’t celebrate a second place almost as fervently. To have been consistently better than one of the most expensively assembled and talent-packed team in the world over the course of an entire season, to my mind is an outstanding achievement. There is still a long way to go and a lot will depend their top players, but having seemingly convinced “El Tigre” to stay at least till the end of the season, the next Madrid derby could well turn out to be the most high-stakes, high-profile match of the season.