How High Can Atletico Madrid Challenge in La Liga and Champions League?
The loss of a £50 million striker and the relative lack of expenditure on replacements might well have incapacitated a lesser side led by a lesser manager, but Atletico Madrid are, if anything, showing even better form this season following Radamel Falcao's departure.
Indeed, ahead of a weekend derby with city rivals Real Madrid, the question needs to be asked: Are Atleti ready to challenge for a long-overdue La Liga title?
Boss Diego Simeone guided the side to an impressive third-place finish last season, where for much of the campaign they threatened to usurp Real as runners-up before eventually falling back to finish nine points adrift.
A place back in the Champions League for 2013-14 was fantastic reward for their efforts, but there was also silverware to follow as Atleti beat Real 2-1 in the Copa del Rey final.
Two trophies in two seasons, constant improvement of the squad and a manager with ambition and drive to match his ability to direct; it has all added up to Atleti's most consistent run of form in years.
Losing Falcao though, even for in excess of £50 million, brought questions of how to replace his goals without upsetting the balance, while Pizzi and a host of reserve players also departed. The club showed great capability in identifying and landing key replacements, though, with David Villa and Leo Baptistao fine additions in the final third and Toby Alderweireld and Joshua Guilavogui sure to be excellent defensive reinforcements.
Continuity has been provided from last year's squad, though, with Diego Costa, Koke and the again-on-loan Thibaut Courtois all in wonderful early form.
Overall, Atleti spent less than half of the money they recouped in sales over the summer—yet have started the season with a 100 percent record in La Liga. Six wins from six and 18 goals scored represents the best possible start they could imagine, and they head into el Derbi madrileno one place and two points above their rivals.
It certainly could have been more, too, if not for a 96th-minute penalty kick winner for Real against newly promoted Elche during the week.
How will Atleti fare in La Liga?
This first derby of the season will take place at the Santiago Bernabeu. In isolation, the outcome won't tell us anything about whether Atletico can genuinely challenge Real and Barcelona for the league title, but the method they approach the game in can tell us plenty about whether they believe it is possible or not.
Further afield, Atleti have a great chance of progression from their Champions League group. A big win over Zenit St Petersburg in their opening game has set the tone now, and they will expect home form to be enough to guide them to victories over Porto and Austria Wien too.
Atleti won't be considered among the favourites to win the tournament outright, certainly not this year and not initially, but they have the technical ability and the individual match-winners to reach the last eight at least, even against better quality opposition.
For now, Simeone and his players will look forward to the clash with Real in anticipation and expectation of being able to continue their unbeaten run, possibly even extending their winning record. It will be far from easy, but early signs show that, just maybe, La Liga is no longer going to be merely a two-horse race.
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