Even for the likes of Atletico Madrid, the Nou Camp must be one of the most daunting football stadiums to play in. With seating of more than 99,000, relentless chants of “Messi, Messi, Messi”and thick Catalan air, its Colosseum-like structure embraces the FC Barcelona players and, more often than not, entraps hapless opponents sent to the slaughter house for a fixture that usually ends in a comfortable win for the home side.
In the last home fixture of the 2013-2014 season, Barcelona played host to Atletico Madrid. Three points separated the two, and a win for either would clinch the league title. There was no immense difference in the quality of the players, but there was a clear clash of identity; Atletico were plucky opponents, clad in mustard yellow and evening blue.
If their impressive showing at Stamford Bridge in their 3-1 win in the Champions League semi-final a few weeks before underpinned their pedigree as a thorn in the side of the top breeds of Europe, then their resilient showing amidst the electrifying atmosphere of the Barcelona crowd added another layer to an already solid skin.
The classic 4-4-2 model had served them well, and as Diego Simeone was lifted high in the sky by his team at the end of that pulsating 1-1 draw, it became clear that this team was not disappearing into the realms of nothingness anytime soon. The stranglehold of the top two in Spain had been broken, a nine-year exchange of power, in a season where Barcelona and Real Madrid had scored 100 and 104 goals respectively. Atletico scored 77, but more importantly, had conceded the least amount of goals with 26 in total.
Instead of a procession, Atletico had played a leading role in a fascinating and unexpected title race. When one thought of the word ‘underdog’, they had elevated themselves as the prime synonym. Taking from the rich, and giving to the poor, in pure Robin Hood fashion.
Since that title triumph, like a leopard embracing the shade of a marula tree in the blazing heat of the African sun, Atletico have been lying in wait, picking their moments to pounce and show us that they are still a title-winning outfit. In the period under Simeone, Atletico have entered the stratosphere of the European elite, and having been in two UEFA Champions League finals in the last five years, as well as capturing the Europa League and the Spanish and UEFA Super Cups, the La Liga crown could be a realistic prospect once again.
Atletico enter the Madrid derby this weekend in third place, two points behind their bitter, more illustrious rivals. Although Madrid have won three Champions League titles in a row, as well as a La Liga title in the 2016-2017 season, in this period of transition the playing field seems level. Los Blancos are still finding their feet under Julen Lopetegui, wounded from the calamitous performance against Sevilla, who showed that an ageing Madrid outfit are susceptible to an intense pressing style and once they found a way past Casemiro – the smoke screen to Madrid’s centre backs – then there was a soft underbelly that they ruthlessly exposed.
Barcelona also showed signs of fragility as they were handed a surprising defeat at the hands of Leganes, who had Gerard Pique to thank for one of those rare “let the ground open up and swallow me whole” moments that he would like to forget in a hurry. Although it is early on in the season, and many would say that these results are mere blips, there is nothing wrong with setting an early marker to give your rivals something to think about, which Atletico have already done in their 4-2 win against Madrid in the UEFA Super Cup.
Would it not be wonderful to once again revel in the counter-attacking, whole-hearted defending style of ‘el Cholo’ – as Simeone is fondly known as – and bask in the glory of the underdog team that elevated themselves from the shadows?
There is something beautiful in the ugly 1-0 wins and the tenacity that Atletico exhibit, working hard for every result, covering each blade of grass with an intensity that epitomises the energetic chaos of their master. Instruction from the sidelines, hassling and demanding, asking for more, more, more, pulling at his black tie, apologising to the referee for his antics, encouraging the crowd at the Wanda Metropolitano to lift the players when they need that extra push. How does he sleep at night?
The new stadium adds to the freshness that surrounds Atletico these days. Summer signings such as Thomas Lemar and Rodri have come in and added some much needed squad depth. Rodri, in particular, looks like a midfield commando in the ilk of Sergio Busquets: tall, dark and handsome, calm on the ball, and a good sense of positional awareness. With Gabi departing to Al Sadd SC in Qatar, a warrior in the truest sense of Simeone’s defensive midfield blueprint, Rodri has the task of filling the void left by his predecessor.
Gabi may be gone, but Diego Godin is still there. So are Filipe Luis and Koke. Arguably the best exponent of uncomplicated centre back marshalling in world football, Godin has aged like fine wine, leading from the back like a well-oiled machine. Diego Costa returned in January, still rugged in the edges of his face, still a pest for defenders in the mold of the old-school number nine. His partnership with Antoine Griezmann could be the glue that sticks everything together, and allows the Frenchman to roam free whilst Costa does his best impression of the pantomime villain.
Last year, Atletico failed to seize the moment when they lost limply to Barcelona in their bid to challenge for the title. It was not the sort of performance that reflected ‘Choloism’, especially against one of the big fish. This weekend affords the opportunity to lay some important groundwork for a season that has the same theme of years gone by: find success in an environment where few would expect them to.
This is the sort of narrative that Simeone thrives on. They may always be underdogs, and they may win ugly, but Atletico are always in and around the top positions, striving to achieve glory in ways that make you appreciate the hard work that goes in to becoming the team that continues to defy the odds, even with the quality that is at Simeone’s disposal.
That is just how he likes it. Madrid and Barcelona have been toppled before. Who says that they cannot be found wanting once again?