Diego Simeone's remarkable Atletico Madrid tenure
Atletico Madrid's hard-fought 2-1 win over Eibar on Saturday was Diego Simeone's 100th league game in charge of Atletico. In a way, it summed up the 44-year-old's two-and-a-half years at the club perfectly: set-piece perfection, little possession and solid, resilient defending, not to mention a suspended boss missing from the sideline. The end result? A narrow victory.
To the club's fans, Simeone is everything. Not even the perma-tan (sometimes more glowing in the winter), the return of a full head of hair after premature baldness seemed inevitable, nor the many unfathomable, inexplicable touchline combustions will stop the Vicente Calderon faithful from loving the Argentine.
Even in England -- where Simeone was nationally loathed following his role in David Beckham's sending off, and the country's subsequent elimination, at the 1998 World Cup -- he is now widely admired. Maybe not loved, but definitely admired.
In breaking the Real Madrid-Barcelona duopoly in La Liga, dumping out mega-rich Chelsea in the semifinals and coming so close in the final of last season's Champions League, the hotheaded Simeone filled the underdog role that not even the most patriotic of Englishmen could hold against him.
He is the darling not only of the Spanish capital but also of all Europe.
When the Argentine took the helm at the Calderon in December 2011, few could see what was to come. While he was a club legend who had a bit of coaching experience, he was by no means hot managerial property and had little experience managing in Europe. The club took an enormous gamble in bringing him back.
Los Colchoneros, known as "El Pupas" (the cursed one), were looking to turn the corner.
They had won the 2010 Europa League and European Super Cup, but their domestic form was not great. They made it (by the skin of their teeth) into the 2011-12 edition of the Europa League and had just signed Radamel Falcao for a club-record fee. They went on to finish top of their Europa League group, and things should have been looking up for the club. The reality, however, was different.
Third-division Albacete had just dumped Atletico out of the Copa del Rey, and then-manager Gregorio Manzano was relieved of his duties less than six months into the job.
They were 10th in the league and looked to be headed for yet another season of mediocrity in the shadow of their more illustrious table-topping neighbours Real Madrid, who went on to win the league with a record haul of 100 points under the guidance of Jose Mourinho.
That season, Los Rojiblancos ended up finishing fifth, 44 points behind Los Blancos, but won the Europa League in emphatic fashion.
Simeone was doing his best to shed the "El Pupas" tag. While the 4-1 hammering of Chelsea in the 2012 European Super Cup gave a hint of glory to come, nobody could have imagined the extent of how things would change under the stewardship of the still-new manager.
Then came 2012-13. Simeone showed faith in youth. Koke was given a prominent role. Diego Costa came back from a successful loan spell. Thibaut Courtois was developing at a high rate, and this Atletico side were starting to believe. The Argentine was extracting incredible performance levels out of players who had previously looked bang average -- Adrian Lopez, anyone?
With captain Gabi acting the manager's muse on the pitch, central to everything, the side were on an upward trajectory. They ended the season third in La Liga, almost halving the points difference between themselves and the champions from the previous season.
The campaign after their humiliating exit from the Copa, fate saw it that the final pitted Madrid's two sides together at the Santiago Bernabeu. It was May 2013. Atleti had not beaten their archrivals in the 21st century. A Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink double did the job in October 1999, when Atleti last secured a win against Real, a 3-1 win in their neighbour's backyard. Six months later, Los Rojiblancos were relegated.
It was not so much an inferiority complex as just inferiority. Atleti had players a level or two below Los Merengues' Galactico compilation, and results reflected as much. Their budgets were -- and still are -- on different planets. Atletico needed more than just their players to step up to the plate.
An inspired display from Courtois, a resilient defensive showing and a bit of luck along the way were enough to reverse 14 years of pain. Four months later, Costa ended a run of 23 winless La Liga derbies -- again at the Bernabeu -- and at this point it should have been obvious something special was on the horizon.
Everyone now knows what happened next.
There can be no understating Simeone's role in dragging Atletico Madrid from nearly men to Spanish champions. He will want to go one step further in Europe's top competition at the Calderon, and with him at the helm, the sky is the limit.
After proving that spirit, hard work and application, rather than silly money, can bring you success, there can be only one man in line for the FIFA World Coach of the Year gong in 2014.<.p>
Thank you, Diego, for everything. Here is to the next 100. Just try to stop getting yourself sent off, OK?