Diego Simeone has said all along that his modus operandi at Atletico Madrid is all about humility, sacrifice and passion, and he got them in spades from his side, who out-thought and out-fought Barcelona to earn a place in the draw for the Champions League semi-finals.
Is there no end to the Argentinian’s talents? Not content with orchestrating matters on the pitch, he now also seems to have appointed himself as chief cheerleader, whipping the crowd up into a frenzy for which the phrase “12th man” could have been invented.
In addition to a technical nous that is second to none, he has done it with a policy of inclusiveness and man management that has made everyone feel like they are an essential part of the plan.
Even the loaning out to Saint Etienne of French star Josuha Guilavogui six months after he arrived at the Vicente Calderon has sent a message to the rest of the team: If they can afford to let a player of his quality go, just how high is the standard in the rest of the squad?
Adrian, who spent six weeks in a row not even making the squad, stepped up to the plate magnificently, thanks in no small part to another brilliant exhibition of man and media management from the Argentinian.
Simeone knew before the match that Diego Costa would not play a part. From that moment on he spent much of the time building Adrian up and telling the world how good he was, how he was going to score and how vital he was to his plans.
On the pitch we saw an irresistible Atletico, with Simeone outwitting Tata Martino with three in attack and three in midfield very close together and narrow, and a Barcelona forced to go wide where they were easy to defend against.
Non-stop pressure high up the pitch meant that whenever they stole the ball they always looked like scoring, and only the woodwork came to the rescue of Barcelona against a side that could, and should, have been out of sight by half-time. And when Barcelona started beating that pressure, Atletico ran like crazy men to defend near their own box.
For Barcelona it was yet another example of what I have been saying for a long time now, namely that the essence of what made this Barcelona a great side is now a thing of the past.
And it’s an essence that you don’t lose simply because players switch off or have a bad day at the office. The truth is that if you don’t work on things on the training ground then they’re not going to happen in matches.
Xavi Hernandez has dropped deeper than ever and is now appearing in areas of the pitch that he never used to. It also seemed to me that Lionel Messi didn’t run as much as usual, and there has also been a new experiment that has seen him play wide with Cesc Fabregas filling in as the false nine.
Quite simply, it hasn’t worked, and they haven’t bettered Atletico Madrid in any of the five meetings between the two clubs so far this season. The reason for that emanates from the bench and from the way Martino has set his team up.
Martino’s decision to replace Andres Iniesta surprised everyone, not least the player himself, because if the great man from Albacete has shown us anything over the years—especially in the big games—it’s that he can single-handedly turn a match on its head with a flash of genius.
Ironically however, defeat for Barcelona could well be the best thing that could have happened to them in their bid to regain the Liga title. I have said all along that whoever lost this game could very well go on to win the league.
Barcelona have seven games left to play (six in the league and the Copa del Rey final). Real Madrid have at least nine games left (six league, one Copa and two Champions League semi-finals), and Atletico have at least eight (six league and two legs of the CL semis).
All in all, Atletico Madrid were superb and Barcelona were poor, but that isn’t the whole story. There was much good to come out of this thrilling encounter. At the end of the match the 4,000 Barcelona fans warmly applauded the Atletico crowd, a gesture reciprocated by the home supporters. A great lesson for football everywhere and a tribute to Barcelona, who in that moment showed the world that they can be as gracious in defeat as they have so often been in victory.
But there’s a potential cloud on the horizon that threatens to rain on Atletico’s parade. According to a clause in the last contract between Chelsea, who own Thibaut Courtois, and Atletico, the Madrid side will have to pay Chelsea a fee in the region of £3 million should they wish to play the keeper in the event of the sides being drawn against each other in the competition.
Atletico’s president Enrique Cerezo has already said that they will not be able to pay this amount. This one could run and run.