Don’t pull any punches; they wouldn’t want it any other way. This Atletico Madrid team are bastards. Cynical, feral, rabid, but more importantly, proud bastards. It’s always been this way. The team of the people; living in the absence of the social pretension of their cross city rivals Real. While Los Blancos basked in their own importance on the night of their centenary by inviting King Juan Carlos and his family to an opulent banquet, Atleti celebrated theirs with a live performance from The Rolling Stones and a giant paella. Ballroom dancing, champagne and Placido Domingo versus sex, drugs and rock and roll. It will always be this way.
The fiscal strength of Los Colchoneros, or the mattress-makers, pales in comparison to La Liga’s two superpowers. Despite having the third highest wage budget in Spain the figure (120 million euro) has remained stagnant for the past five seasons, while the squad has leaked players of the calibre of Falcao, Kun Aguero and David De Gea annually for the best part of a decade. It seems totally irrational for the Kings of Catalonia and Castilla to be quaking in fear; dreading the snarling characters over their shoulders, yet at this current time, there isn’t a more coherent or competitive team in Spain than Diego Simeone’s men.
One can be forgiven for the sense of déjà vu surrounding the Argentine manager today; Simeone was part of the last Atletico side to capture La Liga back in 1996, covering every blade of grass like St. Bridget’s cloak and relentlessly kicking each occupant into submission. Quite often it is impossible to imagine such characters acclimatising to life in the dugout once their dreams on the pitch die out. A safe assumption would have been to assume El Cholo’s managerial career would mirror his fellow central midfield enforcer Roy Keane’s, with the comet’s tail rapidly vanishing after a couple of brief, volatile stints of desperate clubs.
Yet what Simeone has done is nothing short of magnificent. With each transfer window the squad has increased in depth despite the loss of integral members. He may bark around his technical area with manic aggression like a man possessed but his obsession with success is vigorous; last week when Arda Turan capped off a neatly worked set-piece his team celebrated as if they had guaranteed qualification to the second round of the Champions League, but it gave validity to Simeone’s argument that intense application on the training ground results in points on the board.
Defensively his team creates a solid, compact shell surrounding the penalty area, extracting any space in their own half with a bullish tenacity, with the central midfielders led by captain Gabi pressing at just the right time and driving the opposition back in fear of their lives. The back five can claim to be the most secure in Europe not only in terms of squad selection but also defensive certainty. Each player has benefited as a result of Atleti’s aggressive system. The left-back Felipe Luis, as valuable a weapon in attack as he is in defence, represents a serious challenge to his cross-city rival Marcelo for Brazil’s number three jersey during next Summer’s World Cup campaign on home soil.
The squad’s sole world-class performer is Thibaut Courtois, insanely loaned out from Chelsea in a situation as baffling as Romelu Lukaku’s expulsion to Everton for the remainder of the season. Very few goalkeepers are genuine match-winners but the young Belgium international is capable of mind-numbing saves on the rare occasions when his usually impregnable defence is defeated. When Atleti need him most he will always produce. Without him the team’s fortunes would be so different; his heroics at the death during last year’s Copa Del Rey final at the Bernabeu marked a significant alteration in his club’s mentality. This club could go to the biggest stadiums in the world and cause absolute mayhem; only from now on they would have the medals to prove it.
However nobody personifies the side more than Falcao’s successor, the chief bastard Diego Costa. Costa would relish the opportunity to enter a lion’s cage dressed as an antelope. It’s quite an achievement to out-bastard the combined bastardness of Real Madrid’s Pepe and Sergio Ramos in a two-on-one bastard handicap match; Costa does this without breaking a sweat.
However while last season he was merely seen as a pantomime villain he is finally proving his worth to a squad as ambitious as Simeone’s Atleti. Prior to the weekend Costa had scored as many goals as Lionel Messi with a third of the opportunities. At the weekend he added to that tally with two in the victory over Celta Vigo, the second highlighting his brute strength and paradoxical calmness in a one-on-one situation. He’s developed a subtlety in his play; for a player so easily targeted by the opposition and their fan’s his ability to delicately drift unnoticed into advanced positions is superb.
The 24 year old suffers the second most fouls in Spain but gives as good as he gets, committing more fouls than all but four of La Liga's players this season. Against Celta at the fortress of the Calderon he was the team’s chief creator, setting free the usually reliable and now Robin-to-his-Batman David Villa on a number of occasions. However it’s his partnership with the supremely gifted (and wonderfully named Jorge Resurrección) Koke which has proved to be Los Rojiblancos’ most fruitful offensive weapon, with 11 of his last 17 goals being assisted by the 21 year old Spaniard. It’s a combination which has the potential to blossom on both the club scene and internationally, with Costa eligible to play for La Roja via residency in the country of his birth in a year’s time. Ever the protagonist, he would relish the chance to star as the anti-hero in a country baying for his own blood.
The biggest threat to Atleti’s potential challenge is, in comparison to Barcelona and Real Madrid, will they have the squad depth to draw on in March and April when the final chapters of the season are being written. Despite signings like Toby Alderweireld and Joshua Guilavogui, not to mention home-grown prospects like Oliver Torres (make no mistake, this boy is sublime, quite obviously Spanish in style and will shine on the biggest of sporting occasions in a few years), the resources available at a provincial powerhouse like Atletico are incomparable to European super-clubs like Real and Barca. Clubs like Borussia Dortmund and Napoli have struggled to juggle domestic competition with the Champions League in recent years; one tends to give way to the other.
If one team can buck that trend however it’s Simeone’s. This club likes to have its cake and eat it.