Atletico Madrid must tap into their inner underdog to topple rivals

Ahead of the derby with Real Madrid, would it not be wonderful to once again revel in Atletico Madrid’s counter-attacking, whole-hearted defending style under ‘el Cholo’, and bask in the glory of this underdog team?

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?

Groundhopper: Fútbol in the Spanish Capital

Following a recent trip to the Spanish capital of Madrid, Gethin Boore recounts his visit to Alcorón’s Estadio Santo Domingo, AD Union Adarve’s Poli Deportivo Vincente Del Bosque and Atlético Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano.

By Gethin Boore

A few months after a great weekend in the Basque Country, it was time to head over to one of the biggest footballing cities. Some might think Real and Atletico Madrid are the only teams from the city, but as you flick through other names such as Getafe, CD Leganés and Rayo Vallecano, you wouldn’t necessarily know they are based in the capital. This time I watched three games, one in the Primera Division, one in the Segunda Division and one in the Segunda B.

My first game was on the Saturday as I went south of the city to Alcorcón for their Segunda Division game against CD Tenerife. They were formed in 1971, and first reached the Segunda in 2012. They are well known for thrashing their community neighbours, Real Madrid, 4-0 in the Copa Del Rey in 2009, who included Raul, Karim Benzema and Marcelo in their team. They have remained in the Segunda since that first promotion in 2012.

The town is around twenty minutes from Madrid’s Atocha train station, and it was pretty quiet when I arrived with my Dad. There was about four hours till kick off, and we needed to make sure that we had tickets. As we arrived at the Estadio Santo Domingo, it struck me how many 3G pitches surrounded the main stadium.

When we arrived at the ticket office, it was closed, so youth games was our entertainment for half an hour or so and one game involved a Real Madrid Peña, in which they seemed to concede at least 12 goals within the first five minutes! Although all of the surrounding pitches were 3G, there was one which was basically just sand, and which was occupied by South American immigrants.

We got our tickets, and headed to an Alcorcón Peña, and it was more of a Tenerife territory. In amongst the supporters from the Canary Islands were English supporters from Manchester, who follow the Blanquiazules across various cities in Spain. They were with the rest of the Tenerife fans, and they were in full voice at the stadium too.

As soon as we sat in our seats, Tenerife were awarded a penalty, which was tucked away nicely in front of the away fans. The home atmosphere heated up a bit, and Alcorcón were awarded one as well, and it was 1-1. The second half was full of bad crosses really, and neither side threatened to score, and a draw was a fair result in the end.

Coming into the game, both sides were battling in mid-table, so the match itself always wasn’t going to be incredible. The ground was compared to Hereford’s Edgar Street, where one stand has two tiers, and that you can’t see the touchline. Everyone knows that the Primera’s style of football is much slicker than the Segunda’s, but what was comic was the awful standard of crossing.

The Sunday after featured two games. The first game was in the Segunda Division B Grupo 1 between AD Union Adarve and the leaders Fuenlabrada. That league is in the third tier of Spanish football, as there are four different regionalised divisions spread across the country, and neither of these sides have played in the Segunda. The name of the ground is Poli Deportivo Vincente Del Bosque, named after… yes, the Vincente Del Bosque. It is located in Madrid’s business area, where the only stand faces four gigantic towers, which gives it a surreal setting, as it’s also not far from Plaza de Catilla and further on the Bernabéu.

It was a free entry to get into the game, and everyone had to squeeze into one stand facing the towers. Marca gave the crowd 1,000, including 200 odd Fuenlabrada fans and ultras, including one guy wearing Atletico Madrid’s infamous ultra group Frente Atletico t-shirt. The game itself definitely wasn’t the best, as it finished 1-1 with Fuenlabrada scoring first in the first half, before the home side made it all square in the second period.

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AD Union Adarve’s Poli Deportivo Vincente Del Bosque.

We then had a Metro ride to the north-east side of the city to the Estadio Wanda Metropolitano, Atletico Madrid’s new ground, as they faced Athletic Club Bilbao.

This is a fixture that goes back to 1903, when Atletico were founded by a group of Basque students. Their colours were blue and white, before they changed to their traditional red and white strip, and they became known as Los Colchaneros due to their kit being compared to mattress covers. The two giants of Spanish football battled it out in the 2012 Europa League final, in which the capital side won 3-0, and Athletic were the last away team to play at Atletico’s old ground, the Vincente Calderon. The move to the new ground wasn’t something the fans agreed with, because of their switch from their traditional neighbourhood to the other side of the city.

The game itself promised not to be the best because of Atletico’s defensive style of play, but there was no need to play defensive, as the Lions were without their top scorer and legend, Artiz Aduriz. Los Indios won the game 2-0, with goals from Kevin Gamiero and the mad-man himself, Diego Costa. It was a significant win for Atletico, as they played with class, and if felt like they could catch the leaders, Barcelona.

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Atlético Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano.

I’m someone that likes old-school stadiums, but I have to admit that the Wanda is something else. The atmosphere was brilliant, and so much better than what you experience in the Premier League. The one man that definitely helps the atmosphere is the manager, Diego Simeone, as he rarely stops bouncing around on the touchline.

So, Madrid, the capital of this football mad country, definitely didn’t disappoint. We ticked off three grounds, all at different levels, all completely different. However, there are loads of grounds to tick off in the city. Clubs like Fuenlebrada, Rayo Vallecano and Leganés are apparently all worth the visit, and I do highly recommend visiting the Advare and Alcorcón, and of course, the magnificent Wanda.

Again, another brilliant trip in Spain. On to the Community of Valencia next.

Also, if you want to know more about football in Madrid, head over to watch YouTube vlogger Roddy Cons with his channel TheTeamOnTour, where he goes groundhopping to various games in Madrid, from La Liga to the Tercera.

Remembering an Él Colchonero

A visit to the Vicente Calderon in 2016 gave quite the unexpected insight into football fandom as an Él Colchonero was remembered.

By Danny Wyn Griffith

Considerable amounts of time and effort goes into following a football team. Weekends are swallowed, despite the game only lasting for 90mins. You also spend vast amounts of money supporting your beloved over the years, without taking any extra-curricular activities into account. You experience highs and lows, perhaps one more-so than the other dependant on where your loyalties lie. Furthermore, you go through life supporting a team, only to pass away with the men in power hardly ever noticing the time, money and energy you devoted to the cause.

Actually, all of this depends on who you class as the men in power. Do you believe these to be the Middle Eastern sheikhs, Russian oligarchs, American debt-loaders or numerous low-profile shareholders? They might hold the power at club level, but do they hold the power at fan level? Some owners might say they do, but deep down they’d reluctantly accept not. The ones that hold power over the fans are other fans. These might be battle-hardened individuals or someone that hasn’t missed a game in donkey’s years. They might not command respect, but they certainly deserve it. They’ve been there, seen it and done it – no matter what level your team plays at.

This leads me to being outside the Vicente Calderon in September for a La Liga match. Atleti were playing Sporting Gijon on a sweltering Saturday afternoon. Around an hour before kick-off, many had gathered outside a bar opposite the grand stadium. Chanting could be heard, smiles could be seen. Atleti had started the season in decent fashion, immediately picking themselves up from a second Champions League final defeat in three years to their cross-town rivals, Real Madrid.

 

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Atleti fan with a Diego Simeone printed home shirt.

 

Diego Simeone’s name echoed around the Madrid streets. That previous day he announced the 2016/17 season would be his last with the team, meaning Atleti would head into the new 70,000 Estadio la Peneita with a new manager. The news spelled disaster to an outsider like me, but the Atleti fans seemed proud to have had Diego Simeone lead their team since 2011.

It is no coincidence that Atleti have seen improved fortunes with El Cholo at the helm. He’s a true warrior and wears his heart on his sleeve in every meaning of the phrase. He’ll be remembered in the same breath as other Los Colchoneros managerial greats like Ricardo Zamora, Helenio Herrera and former Atleti player and four-time coach, Luis Aragonés. They are part of the Atleti history and so will Diego be.

Nevertheless, a sudden spell of silence engulfed the previously joyful fans. Something wasn’t right. The street opened like the Red Sea being parted by Moses. Around 40 fans took centre-stage, standing still with flares lit above their heads. Tears were shedding down some of the faces. They began chanting but not like previously heard. This was actually a remembrance.

 

 

I normally despise the modern society element of taking your phone out to film everything a tad out of the ordinary, but that is exactly what I did. Despite the back-tingling atmosphere which struck each and every one in the surrounding area, this was actually a moment to behold in a rather sinister way. It showed what fan culture truly meant.

The flares eventually died out but the embracing continued. An emotional fan by the name of Alby approaches having seen me video what had just taken place. He asks if I could send it over to him, given the person was an Atleti ultra and one of his best friends who had died a fortnight earlier. He mentions that the crowd included the deceased’s girlfriend and sister.

He emphasises: “He was taken too early and this is how we celebrate his name.”

 

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Fans gathered outside the Vicente Calderon stadium.

 

At times during the football season, you spend more of the week with your friends and fellow fans than you do at home with your family. Perhaps you go from watching your team at home on a Saturday, to seeing them play a midweek European fixture and play a domestic away the following weekend. You might not have handpicked the individuals you spend this vast amount of time with, but you share more highs and lows with them than any outsider could care to imagine. You look out for each and every one because you all believe in the same thing. Together you celebrate or anguish, sing and shout, laugh or cry.

The match played out a 5-0 victory for Atleti against an awe-struck Sporting Gijon side. This was an appropriate celebration of a lost life. From what my limited Spanish gathered, the deceased wasn’t mentioned once by the stadium operator. His family, friends and fellow fans wouldn’t have been bothered in the slightest though – they had just given him a better send off than anyone could hope for and his team had also delivered.

That day, an El Colchonero was remembered.

The Third Clásico

Here we have Luke Rees with his preview of this Saturday’s top-of-the-table clash between Atlético and Barça at the Vicente Calderón Stadium.

By Ed Wade.

Although Atlético Madrid v Barcelona may not hold the same glamour as the official El Clásico, it is now a game which some consider a title decider due to the form shown by both sides this season.

Barcelona were victorious in the reverse fixture having claimed a 1-0 victory and could go six points clear at the top – if they win their game in hand.

The contest on 30th January is one neither team want to lose, but even more so for Atlético Madrid as this will be a serious test for their title credentials come the end of the season.

Atlético were last crowned champions of Spain in 2013-14 by earning a point on the last day of the season in a crunch-match against Barcelona as well as reaching the UEFA Champions League Final.

Many thought that Atlético’s success would be a one season wonder. However, they are currently level at the top of La Liga – behind Barcelona only on goal difference with Diego Simeone being applauded for some shrewd investments in the squad.

The club continued their steady progress following the title win despite the loss of major players, such as Diego Costa to Chelsea and the recent departure of Arda Turan to upcoming opponents Barcelona.

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Arda Turan in his new colours.

The return of Los Colchoneros favourite Felipe Luis from Chelsea has been a big boost and he’s been a constant threat down the left.

Despite suffering from the cliché slow start following his move from Villarreal, Luciano Vietto looks a promising young player who could be vital for the future – or sooner if any of Atlético’s stars move on in the summer.

Last year, they finished the league campaign in third place and managed to make it into the last eight of the UEFA Champions League. However, this time around they look more like the old battle-hardened Atlético that Diego Simeone’s sides have become renowned for.

They are capable of grinding out results when they need to, having won 1-0 seven times and scored a relatively mediocre 30 league goals so far this season.

Incredibly, this amounts to fifteen less goals than Messi, Neymar and Suarez’s combined total.

Catalan giants Barcelona on the other hand had a contrast in fortune. Having lost out on the title in 2014, the club invested heavily the following summer. They brought in Luis Suarez, Ivan Rakitic and the less successful Thomas Vermaelen, which resulted in them winning the treble for the second time in their history.

The trident of attacking prowess through the likes of Messi, Suarez and Neymar was enough to blow most opposition out of the water – registering an astonishing 122 goals in all comps last season.

Barça have coped admirably despite not being able to play their two major summer signings Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal until January due to the much-publicised transfer ban. Both players could give them that edge during the run-in – something Luis Enrique seems to agree with.

“Arda can play in the middle or out wide, and I dare say Aleix Vidal could play in any of three positions, either at full-back, centre-back or even out on the wing.” Said Luis Enrique early in December whilst discussing what each player would bring to the current fold.

With only two defeats all season, they’ve built on their successful 2014-15 by displaying some impressive form and winning the FIFA Club World Cup and UEFA Super Cup and they look in fine-shape heading into the latter stages of the campaign.

Whilst there have been a number of classic meetings between both sides in the past; the last five games have been very tight with the winning team having won by more than one goal, on only one occasion.

Diego Godin has been a real leader at the back for Atlético once again this season, having seen him command a defence that has only conceded a mere eight league goals. On top of this, he normally seems to relish the challenge of keeping out his compatriot and close friend Luis Suarez.

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Suarez and Godin during international duty.

On a sour note, Diego Simeone had to admit this week that they could lose their prized-possession in Frenchman Antione Griezmann.

He said: “Of course he’s a very important player for us, but we can’t hold him here with chains.”

The cultured left-footer remains the most focal point of attack for the Madrid outfit and the forward will want to justify any potential big money move with a showing at the Vicente Calderón Stadium.

On the other hand, newly crowned Ballon D’or winner Lionel Messi has pledged his future to Barça by stating his desire to end his career with the club and continue winning trophies:

“My idea is I want to finish at home, and my home is Barca.” He said.

The Argentine captain is starting to get back to full fitness after scoring his 11th league goal of an injury-hit campaign and will surely lead the line for Barcelona on Saturday.

It remains to be seen if ‘The Third Clásico’ will ever be as big as the original, but there is no doubt that Saturday afternoon’s top-of-the table clash will prove to be the biggest European football has to offer this weekend.

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