Diego Simeone's Atletico Madrid Are Alive and Kicking

Andy BrassellFeatured ColumnistAugust 12, 2014

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If the UEFA Super Cup meeting between Real Madrid and Sevilla is a moment of triumph for La Liga, you will forgive many of its aficionados for feeling that it is a mere appetiser for the main dish. Next week, El Real will resume cross-city hostilities with champions Atletico Madrid in the Supercopa, three months on from their Champions League final against each other in Lisbon.

When Atletico celebrated that first title triumph in 18 years—and you still have to pinch yourself when recalling it—at Plaza de Neptuno in front of their delirious fans, the squad members wore commemorative T-shirts.

The legend on them read “La Historia Se Escribe, Latido A Latido” either side of a red-and-white striped heart. “History is written, beat by beat,” it reads translated. It was an apt image. These days, the blood pumps a little harder during occasions in which Atleti are involved.

It was easy to wonder, though, if those beating hearts could give any more after such an exacting and historic season. When Sergio Ramos’ deft header snaked into the corner of Thibaut Courtois’ net in stoppage time at the Estadio da Luz, Atletico knees sunk to the turf. It seemed as if their extraordinary fortitude had run out.

A summer of key departures did little to ease the feeling. Some were inevitable, with one always feeling that they would do well to survive summer 2014 with only the loss of top scorer Diego Costa and the titanic Courtois. Filipe Luis, now considered by some as the world’s premier left-back, followed them to Chelsea.

Three successive goalless draws in pre-season, against San Jose Earthquakes, Mexico’s America and Champions League qualifiers Galatasaray, had suggested a degree of ring-rustiness and a loss of intensity. It was only to be expected, perhaps, with the personalities of the departed as much as their ability leaving a hole.

So it was a boost to those hoping for another competitive season in Spain to see Atleti back firing on Saturday with an impressive 5-1 win at Wolfsburg. Dieter Hecking’s side, expected to be right in the mix for a Champions League spot in this season’s Bundesliga, fielded a strong team but were swept aside by their stylish and strong visitors.

“This Atletico works,” wrote Sunday’s edition of Marca, sharing the sense of relief that the rhythm and the character of Diego Simeone’s team was not lost.

What made Atelti’s display all the more laudable is that new signings, including €30 million Antoine Griezmann and Guilherme Siqueira, didn’t even start the match. Jan Oblak, the Slovenian goalkeeper bought for €16 million from Benfica to replace Courtois, is not yet fit, but Miguel Angel Moya was excellent standing in for him. There’s more to come.

Mario Mandzukic, Costa’s replacement, played well at his old stomping ground, scoring a penalty. Jesus Gamez’s arrival from Malaga released Spain’s Juanfran to play a little further forward. Yet it was seeing the old habits intact that gave most heart to Rojiblanco fans.

The first goal was a case in point, with set-piece specialist (and captain) Gabi supplying the perfect corner delivery for Raul Garcia to thunder a header past Diego Benaglio. In the second half, Koke came on to conduct the orchestra, as he has so many times before. He laid on one for Garcia with a stunning pass before adding a sublime finish of his own.

It showed their depth, but above all, it showed that the key—beyond Costa or Courtois— has been the retention of Simeone. The short-term advantage for Atleti is that there are so few feasible destinations for their boss, despite the breathtaking job he has done at the Calderon, given his demanding, all-consuming work ethic that requires the players’ total immersion. The ability to attract Griezmann, an unthinkable move even a year ago, is testament to his cache.

The Argentinian, who lives and breathes his work, will now be able to watch the UEFA Super Cup unfold in Cardiff with a certain sang froid. It will be his side in Sevilla’s stead next week, as Atletico aim to wreak some small revenge for the disappointment of Lisbon. They have a steep climb to match last season’s achievements, but their quality and ambition is very much alive.