Simeone substance behind Atletico ascent
Something is stirring among Atletico Madrid fans ahead of next Saturday's derby at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu. Over the weekend just gone, while Real Madrid supporters listened nervously to Jose Mourinho's claims that incompetent referees, his own uncommitted players and Barcelona's influence over the league's fixtures committee were to blame for his side's 1-0 loss at Real Betis, Atletico were strolling to another routine victory.
The 4-0 win over Sevilla kept them second in the table, just three points behind table toppers Barcelona and a whopping eight points ahead of third placed Real. Such a pendulum swing has led to hopes among the Atleti faithful that maybe, just maybe, the time is right for a first victory over their local rivals this century.
Much of the basis for this optimism is due to the unerringly sure touch of one man, and it's not Radamel Falcao. Diego Simeone has been Atletico Madrid coach for less than 12 months, but already has a good claim to be counted among the best bosses in the club's history. Since taking over last January his Atletico have 36 wins from 51 games, with eight draws and just seven defeats across all competitions.
The victories include two super-convincing cup final triumphs over Athletic Bilbao (3-0 in the Europa League) and Chelsea (4-1 in the UEFA Super Cup). A win percentage of 71% puts the Argentine far ahead of illustrious Colchoneros predecessors including Luis Aragones (50%), Helenio Herrera (50%), Jose Villalonga (58%), Fred Pentland (41%) and fellow Europa League winner Quique Sanchez Flores (41%).
Falcao's goals have clearly been important to such ahistorical consistency, but a lot of the credit must go to the mentality instilled by Simeone. On taking the job his constant press conference references to being tough, committed and warrior-like were loved by Atletico fans who remembered the Argentine's ultra-committed style as a player for the club more than a decade ago, but dismissed by sceptical reporters who doubted the ability of a previously feckless squad. The doubters have comprehensively been proven wrong however, and former figures of fun like Miranda, Diego Godin, Felipe Luis, Mario Suarez and Raul Garcia have all played their part in making Atletico La Liga's toughest, most durable unit, capable of winning while not (or not appearing to) play well.
Simeone has also managed to prevent Atletico's pretty huge off-field problems from affecting on-pitch performances. While some fans are worried by the club's huge tax debts and UEFA embargoing their prize money, more worrying has been the continuing speculation surrounding top scorer Falcao. The Colombian's blistering early season form (17 goals in his first 12 games) was not realistically maintainable, but there had been slight concerns after he went four games without a goal for club or country, especially with conjecture linking him with a winter window move to Chelsea, and more regularly in Spain with a summer transfer across the city to the Bernabeu, refusing to go away.
El Tigre certainly looked in his best nick against Sevilla on Sunday, when his contribution was more noticeable for the recent improvements in his all-round game. He caused the havoc in the area which led to the game's defining moment - a red card for visiting defender Fabrizio Fazio and a penalty which the ex-Porto man himself converted after just 20 minutes. His very presence also led to more space for Atletico's quick-breaking midfielders, especially when Sevilla were down to ten men. More excellent hold-up work also led to the second goal, when Sevilla's other centre-back Emir Spahic knocked an Arda Turan cross into his own net after Falcao had held the ball up well and released the Turkey international into the visitors' area.
The game also showed the excellent use which Simeone, who has rotated regularly while sailing through the Europa League group stages, makes of a squad that does not look too exciting on paper. The confidence of supposed reserves was shown in the third goal against Sevilla, when two of those brought in for the game combined, with an attacker out of favour last season, Diego Costa, crossing cleverly to enable 20-year-old midfielder Koke to smash the ball home first time at the back post.
The second half was mostly notable for regular left-back Felipe, centre-half Miranda and holding midfielder and captain Gabi avoiding the yellow cards which would have ruled them out of next weekend's game. As the game meandered to a close, the home fans roused themselves to loudly whistle former Atletico winger Jose Antonio Reyes when he was subbed off late on after making no impression on the game. A late red card for visiting midfielder Ivan Rakitic meant Sevilla ended with nine, and Miranda's injury time tap-in from Arda's unselfish assist saw Atletico finish with four goals.
So an easy win over a supposed Champions League qualification rival, and a perfect warm-up for next Saturday's big test of their title credentials. It looked easy, but then this season's Atletico have become expert at squeezing the opposition out of games, and emerging with the three points while not appearing to play especially well. Despite having won 17 of the 20 matches played, they have only averaged 48% possession per game. Opponents might have plenty of the ball, but they generally create few chances, and Atletico have conceded only 11 goals in 13 La Liga games. A scrappy midfield duo, usually Gabi and Mario Suarez, and then hardworking line of three - most likely Arda, Koke and Raul Garcia on Saturday - shut down the opposition while working dutifully to get the best out of Falcao up front.
Such expertise at managing games and turning a few chances into a lot of points is highly valued by Simeone. His claim after his first game in charge - a 0-0 draw at Malaga - that the aim was to create one goalscoring opportunity and take it, not to create 15 and miss them all, was sniffed at by many in January, but now nobody doubts that El Cholo knows what he is talking about. And his side will need to take any chances they get next Saturday, for even with Atletico's surging successes and Madrid's recent struggles, the bookies will still make Mourinho's team heavy favourites to win.
That's because Atletico have not emerged victorious from the Bernabeu since 1999, when Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink scored twice in a 3-1 win. But that was also the last time that Atletico travelled to the Bernabeu looking down on their hosts in the table. Even more positively, they have gone into a derby with an eight-point advantage in the table just three times - 1947-48, 1976-77 and 1995-96 - and won two of those games. In 95-96 it finished 1-0 to Atletico, with Simeone scrapping in midfield, during a season which ended with the team claiming their most recent La Liga title, and the Argentine winning Spain's Player of the Year award.
Given the record-breaking form of Tito Vilanova's Barcelona, and the likely wears and tears of the season, not even the most wildly optimistic Atletico fan is really considering a title charge. But a win at the Bernabeu now looks quite possible. It could be now or never for Atletico.