La Liga repeat impossible for Atletico?
... and Xavi.
"Monsters," says Atletico Madrid captain Gabi.
He's not wrong. It is his team, not either of theirs, that won the league title last season, but you just can't take your eyes off them, even if you wanted to. So here we are again: a new year in Spain and no one thinks that the league champions will be the league champions again. Real Madrid and FC Barcelona come into focus once more. Another season, another battle between two monsters.
Madrid and Barcelona have dominated the headlines all summer: watch the lunchtime news and a 40-minute sports bulletin will dedicate 20 to Madrid, 15 to Barcelona and three to Atletico. That's league champions Atletico; the best team in the country Atletico. And yes, those are real figures. Pick up the newspapers from over the past month and look for a front page dedicated exclusively to the league champions. You won't find one.
When the fixtures came out, the question everyone asked was the question they always ask when the fixtures come out: when's the Clasico? (Oct. 26, in case you're wondering.)
There's something a little weird, something almost wrong and certainly something sad about that when for the first time in a decade, someone else goes into the season as defending champions. But there is something inevitable about it too. It is a social reality; more than 60 percent of the country declares themselves a fan of the big two, and even those who don't have a preference. When one recent poll asked "Madrid or Barcelona?" only 11 percent said "neither."
Besides, Barcelona and Madrid are the favourites ... even if Atletico do say so themselves.
Madrid and Barcelona dominate the agenda, the column inches and TV minutes because they sell. And because they buy, of course. Like an arms race, it keeps on. Last summer it was Bale and Neymar; this summer, it's Suarez and James. They already had Ronaldo and Messi. No wonder everyone thinks they are favourites -- because they are. Losing the title last year almost makes them even more favourites than before; the obligation to act was greater. Maybe less so for Madrid having finally clinched their tenth European Cup, but certainly for Barcelona: 2013-14 was the first time they had won nothing in six years.
Diego Simeone this week insisted that the teams Atletico have to compete with this season are Valencia, Sevilla and Athletic Bilbao. Asked by Gazzetta dello Sport journalist Filippo Ricci whether his team were favourites, he insisted: "not in the slightest."
He said much the same last year, of course, and look what happened then. And actually, Atletico have spent significant money this summer; so far the outlay is 95 million euros. That's only 20m less than Real Madrid.
Atletico are not a poor team; that downtrodden discourse does not carry the weight it did. Antoine Griezmann (30m) and Mario Mandzukic (22m) lead the list of players who have arrived at the Calderon. The difference is that although they appear to have bought well, 85m of that was made on sales that, in purely footballing terms, Atletico would have preferred not to make. Diego Costa and Thibaut Courtois will be sorely missed.
Simeone insists the change is too great to expect them to replicate what they did last season; they still have to perfect the modifications in their style, getting used to new players and personalities. "We're the champions but [some of] the players aren't," he told Gazzetta. "We don't have a structure that allows us to invest 80 million in just one player; that [almost] 100m has bought us almost everything." By contrast, Simeone says Real Madrid and Barcelona have hardly changed; that they have a stability.
Yet his point is questionable. When the name Luis Suarez was put to him, Simeone replied: "one player." One? But then there is Thomas Vermaelen and Jeremy Mathieu, Rafinha and Rakitic, Claudio Bravo and Marc-Andre ter Stegen. A new player in every line of the pitch. Carles Puyol has gone, Victor Valdes has gone and Xavi looks set to start the season on the bench. They have a new manager and a new identity: turning to Luis Enrique represents a conscious decision to change both their approach and their attitude. And Suarez, of course, can't even play until Oct. 26.
Even Madrid, seemingly more stable, have changes to assimilate. Carlo Ancelotti admitted yesterday that Angel Di Maria has asked to leave. He also insisted he would maintain the same 4-3-3 structure from last season even though Di Maria, repositioned on the left of the middle three instead of the right of the front three, was vital in making that work. There is not really another player who can play that role in the same way, with the same energy and acceleration.
James is Madrid's big summer signing but his arrival makes Di Maria's departure more likely -- and the notion that Di Maria "wants" to go must be read in the context of the last two superstar summer signings and his desire for a salary more in line with the club's big earners. Also, Di Maria's natural position, like Isco's last season, doesn't really exist at Madrid now. There has been less noise about him, but Toni Kroos may prove an even more significant signing. His start has been superb.
Simeone is right, though. It is hard to see Atletico winning the league. Last season, one player admitted that they could not win a 100-point league. In the end it was a 90-point league, the lowest total for five years. That opportunity may not present itself again. In part, the drop was because Atletico took points from the big two (four from Madrid, four from Barcelona, both of whom ended on 87), but not only that: in the final weeks, they all dropped unexpected points.
For one of the big two to slip up -- even if "slip up" seems an exaggeration when talking about teams that racked up 87 points, enough to win every single league before 2007-08 -- is one thing. For them both to do so again is another.
"I don't like lying to people and one thing is clear: we can't compete with Madrid and Barcelona," Simeone said. "Our rivals are Sevilla, Valencia and Athletic. Our objective is third place." If so, it is an objective for which they certainly are favourites. Atletico have not allowed the departure of their best players to signal the collapse of their team. Their rebuilding has been analysed in terms of keeping up with Madrid and Barcelona, but it should also be analysed in terms of distancing them from the rest. They may not reach 100 points, or even the 90 like they did last season, but their total will be high.
What Simeone says and what Simeone feels may not be the same thing. Third is realistic, but sights will privately be set higher. If the idea that the champions would settle for third feels a little wrong to you, it almost certainly feels wrong to Simeone too.
Yet there is a bottom line, which takes us back to the top line. Have a look at that list of players again. Even if it does feel a little unfair to be looking beyond the team that deservedly won the league, to be writing off their defence of the title before it has even begun, even if it does feel like Spanish football needed them, even if it does seem sad that Simeone says his team can't compete, even if the dominance of the big two can frustrate and you can find yourself crying out for the talent to be spread about, it's hard to go through that list and not to get just a teensy little bit excited about the Clasico.
It is hard, too, to imagine Atletico winning the league. Simeone says it is impossible. It was hard last year and he said it was impossible then, too.
Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.