Atletico Madrid currently top La Liga by one point with six games to play. Wednesday they host Barcelona in the second leg of their Champions League quarter-final, with the tie standing at 1-1. Without doubt, the Rojiblancos have put themselves in two great positions to win some serious silverware this season.
However, you would be hard-pressed to say they are certain to emerge with a trophy this season. Domestically, Real Madrid and Barcelona are breathing down their necks, while they were unceremoniously dumped out of the Copa del Rey by archrivals Real in February. And Barca, without a Champions League final appearance since 2011—a barren spell by their standards—are unlikely to roll over when they visit Vicente Calderon Wednesday.
Having made themselves eligible to win titles, it is essential Atletico convert at least one of their chances. Here are five reasons why they cannot afford to lose.
Atletico have a tradition of losing their best players. Sergio Aguero, Diego Forlan and Fernando Torres are just some of the names to leave. In 2014, the same is likely to happen again.
Last year, it was Falcao moving to Monaco. This year, for Falcao read Diego Costa, and for Monaco, read any one of a number of clubs. Marc Williams of The Independent suggests Costa could also be heading for Monaco but notes that Chelsea are also keen on the striker.
Atletico will find it increasingly difficult to keep Costa's head from being turned if they end up as this season's also-rans. Winning a high-profile trophy is part of what they need to do to prove they can mix it with the big boys.
Shaking off the "bottler" tag
Atletico have a history of being the unlucky club in Spanish football. Indeed, they have earned themselves the nickname "El Pupas" (slang for unlucky) after a series of mid-table finishes in recent La Liga seasons (per Ethan Tellet of Elcentrocampista.com). Throwing away a domestic league title after leading with just six games left would further cement that unlucky tag in Spanish football fans' minds.
Real Madrid and Barcelona have many millions more to spend on playing staff than lowly Atletico. They are the two richest clubs in the world, in terms of income, with Aletico only managing to squeeze into the top 20, per Deloitte's Football Money League research.
Atletico are saddled with more than 500 million euros of debt, and the cost of paying their staff wages is more than 90 per cent of annual earnings (per ibnlive.in.com). They have managed to stay afloat due to a combination of delayed loan repayments, the sales of top players and a short-term sponsorship deal with the Azerbaijan government.
That said, head coach Diego Simeone has managed to fashion a squad capable of becoming the third force in Spanish football from an assortment of largely unfashionable players. Only continued success on the pitch, which means a continued presence in the Champions League and the odd domestic title, will allow them to attract a more lucrative sponsorship deal and to pay down those debts.
Vindication of their style
The recent history of Spanish football has been all about tiki-taka—intricate passing and restricting the opposition by retaining the ball. Diego Simeone, however, prefers a more direct approach, playing high-pressure football that counters the style of more illustrious clubs such as Barcelona.
All-action players such as Diego Costa, Arda Turan and Koke have thrived under Simeone's tutelage, which delivered the Copa del Rey trophy last year. However, that will come as little comfort if Atletico throw away their best chance at league glory in a generation. Winning La Liga could signal the beginning of the end for the tiki-taka style.
Breaking the Real/Barca hegemony
Neutral watchers of Spanish football over the past decade will be forgiven for thinking of only two clubs when it comes to unmissable games. Real Madrid and Barcelona have vied with each other domestically and taken on the rest of Europe's elite with little else in the way of competition from Spain. Now, in the post-Mourinho and Guardiola era, Atletico have the chance to make things (dare we say) exciting again by shaking up the old order. Healthy competition makes for a great league. No one wants to see a procession to the title.