Atletico Madrid face tough week as Villarreal, PSV and Real tests loom
Atletico Madrid's preseason preparations in Los Angeles de San Rafael, buried in the hills to the north of Madrid, in scorching summer temperatures under Diego Simeone's orders are renowned to be among the most gruelling in football. Yet, it is for weeks like the one Simeone's charges are about to embark on that the Argentine drills his troops so relentlessly.
Atletico face a season-defining six days with a series of distinct targets and challenges to come. High-flying Villarreal's visit to the Vicente Calderon is the starting gun before a return to Champions League action at PSV Eindhoven on Wednesday and finally a highly anticipated Madrid derby at the Santiago Bernabeu next Saturday.
The first task for Los Rojiblancos is the one Simeone likes to, publicly at least, focus on: being the third force in Spanish football. The Argentine has raised expectations so much in his four years on the banks of the Manzanares -- most notably with the remarkable La Liga title triumph of 2013-14 -- that it is taken for granted that Atletico should annually challenge Real Madrid and Barcelona's duopoly.
Atletico hold a comfortable, but not unassailable, six-point lead over fourth-placed Villarreal. Victory will virtually secure Atletico's automatic place back in next season's Champions League. Allowing further progress in the club's meteoric improvement financially off the field in recent years, and even more crucial with the move to a new stadium on the horizon.
Yet, Villarreal are not to be taken lightly. Unbeaten in 11 La Liga games, the Yellow Submarine have also tasted recent success in this fixture thanks to Atletico strikers past and present.
Last season, Luciano Vietto struck the only goal to condemn Atletico to a rare 1-0 defeat at the Calderon. Simeone had long been a fan of the pint-sized Argentine since handing him his debut as a 17-year-old at Racing Club, however, there is no doubt his winner last December played a big role in sealing his €20 million move to Atleti seven months later. In September, it was one of Atletico's own who did the damage as the on-loan Leo Baptistao scored the winner in another 1-0 success for Villarreal.
With La Liga's two best defences on show, goals are likely to be in short supply once more. Indeed, five of the past six games between the sides have finished 1-0.
Yet, while Villarreal battled Napoli in one of the biggest ties on Thursday's Europa League return, Atletico had the advantage of a free midweek and as such should be favourites to lock down a top-three finish. Moreover, should they start a huge week on the right foot, the ambitions of Simeone, the players and fans alike begin to change.
Barcelona's frightening form and a six-point lead at the top of the table makes another La Liga title a longshot. Therefore, if Simeone is to continue his run of delivering a trophy in every year of his reign in charge, it is likely to have to be the club's first ever Champions League. On paper at least, the draw has been kind; PSV don't offer the perils that other potential second-placed sharks in December's draw like PSG or Juventus would have offered.
Yet, the Dutch champions could pose a very different challenge to Simeone's men, and one that they have often failed to answer this season. If PSV cede the initiative and force Atletico to find the creative spark over two legs to break them down, the Spanish capital club could well struggle.
Much to the disdain of the Calderon faithful, Atletico then have little time to rest, recover and prepare before being thrown into a battle with eternal rivals Real Madrid at the Bernabeu on Saturday afternoon. Simeone has already gotten the upper hand over Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti and Rafa Benitez in his time in charge, and now will meet Zinedine Zidane for the first time.
At least at the Bernabeu the game plan will be straightforward and back to the tried and trusted for Atletico. Defend deep, frustrate the hosts and then expose their weaknesses at set pieces and on the counter-attack. The worry remains, though, that their energy levels may have been overly sapped by the time the final act of the trilogy comes around.
Atletico managed just one point from their back-to-back clashes with Villarreal and Madrid earlier in the season, with Simeone's only home defeat in the Champions League to Benfica slipped in between. A repeat over the next six days would signal the death knell for Atletico's unlikely title charge.
The loss of Belgian starlet Yannick Carrasco for the next few because of an ankle injury could be particularly troublesome due to the side's struggle create and score goals. Yet, it is also time for Atletico's hard preseason work off the field, in the offices of the Calderon, to come through.
Vietto, Angel Correa and Oliver Torres will get their chance in Carrasco's absence, and need to start repaying Simeone's faith. A hard eight-month slog has brought Atletico into contention with spring time on the horizon. Now they have to deliver when it really matters.
Joseph Walker covers Atletico Madrid for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Joe_in_espana.