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Why Atletico Madrid Are More Than Dark Horses for La Liga and Champions League

Tre' Atkinson@@TreAtkinsonFeatured ColumnistMarch 31, 2014

MADRID, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 02: Joao Miranda (2ndL) celebrates scoring their third goal with teammates Diego Ribas (R), Diego Godin (2ndR), Koke (3dR) and Raul Garcia (L) during the La Liga match between Club Atletico de Madrid and Real Sociedad de Futbol at Vicente Calderon Stadium on February 2, 2014 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Well, here we are. The month of April is about to begin, and Atletico Madrid are still alive and well in both the Champions League and the La Liga title race.

Not only has Diego Simeone been able to keep Atletico in the La Liga championship race, they are actually leading it.

At the start of this season, most were in agreement on Atletico Madrid’s chances of lifting silverware.

After last year’s brilliant display, pundits and fans alike seemed to believe that Los Colchoneros would again dazzle but eventually fizzle out, as they were not quite at the level of Europe’s elite.

However, here we are and the Spanish club is not only surviving, they are thriving.

It is past time that Atletico Madrid receive the praise they are due. The era of counting them out or expecting them to drop off is over. Los Colchoneros are ready to seriously challenge and are no longer dark horses in La Liga or the Champions League.

MADRID, SPAIN - MARCH 15: Diego Costa (R) of Atletico de Madrid celebrates scoring their opening goal with teammates Gabi Fernandez (L) and Tiago Mendes (2ndL) during the La Liga match between Club Atletico de Madrid and RCD Espanyol at Vicente Calderon S
Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images
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After their 2-1 victory over Athletic Club Bilbao, Atletico have sent a message. They are for real and are ready to contend with and challenge the very best that Europe has to offer.

Let’s take a look first at the title race in Spain. At the moment, Diego Simeone’s men are leading the table by a single point and are on a six-match winning streak. They did have a few slip-ups in February, but it is now smooth sailing at the Vicente Calderon.

The players have been performing at a high level as a single unit, as is the Simeone way, but the club has also been able to get incredible contribution from players individually.

For instance, Diego Costa has been an absolute monster all season long. The naturalized Spanish striker has found the back of the net 25 times in La Liga play, which accounts for 36 percent of the team total.

At the same time, Atletico Madrid have been able to get scoring contribution from other players as well. David Villa has already scored 13 goals, while Raul Garcia, Koke and others are chipping in plenty of goals themselves.

But it isn’t just the scoring that is helping Atletico achieve success, they are playing dominant football in every area of the pitch and show no signs of slowing down.

MADRID, SPAIN - MARCH 11:  Raul Garcia of  Club Atletico de Madrid celebrates after scoring Atletico's 3rd goal during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16, 2nd leg match between Club Atletico de Madrid v AC Milan at Vicente Calderon Stadium on March 11,
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Gabi and Tiago still form one of Europe’s most consistent midfield duos and have been the anchor of Atletico’s squad. Their ability to hold up play in the middle of the pitch is fantastic, as is their innate strength at creating problems for opposing forwards.

When we take another step back, we get to the real heart and soul of Atletico Madrid—their defense.

In all honesty, Atletico Madrid have had the best defensive unit in all of Europe for nearly two seasons. With a centre-back pairing of Miranda and Diego Godin, opponents find it nearly impossible to break through while Juanfran and Filipe Luis could very well be the best full-back pairing around.

Add in keeper Thibaut Courtois to an already incredible defense, and you have a recipe for success.

MADRID, SPAIN - JANUARY 11:  Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois of Atletico de Madrid greets the audience after the La Liga match between Club Atletico de Madrid and FC Barcelona at Vicente Calderon Stadium on January 11, 2014 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Gonzal
Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

It is clear that Atletico Madrid have passed the point of being dark horses and could even be considered favorites to win the La Liga title due to their remaining schedule, but they may be just as dangerous in the Champions League.

Atletico Madrid cruised through the group stage of the Champions League, winning every match except for one draw against Zenit. Los Colchoneros easily won their group and had to face off with AC Milan in the next round.

After a 1-0 victory at the San Siro, it began to look like the Spanish club would start to dip in form. However, they won the return leg 4-1, showing that they were going absolutely nowhere.

Now, Atletico Madrid will turn their sights to none other than Barcelona, whom they will play over two legs in hopes of reaching the next round of the European tournament.

A few years ago, being matched up with Barcelona would have been a death wish for Atletico Madrid. But that isn’t the case today.

In Atletico’s last three meetings with La Blaugrana, they have played to draws, and in the opinion of some, even outplayed Barcelona throughout the 90 minutes of those matches.

MADRID, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 18:  Joao Miranda (unseen) of Club Atletico de Madrid celebrates with team-mates after scoring his team's opening goal during the UEFA Champions League Group G match between Club Atletico de Madrid and FC Zenit at Vicente Caldero
Denis Doyle/Getty Images

In fact, Barcelona have not beaten Atletico Madrid in over a year and have found their rivals from the Vicente Calderon a real threat.

It is not impossible to think that Atletico Madrid could knock off Barcelona and reach the next round of the Champions League. If they were to do so, Atletico would face yet another tough opponent, but they have already shown they are capable of standing up against anyone.

For many, the biggest arguments against Atletico Madrid being a true contender is their lack of depth. Truthfully, their squad is not as deep as other European giants, but that hasn’t seemed to stop Los Colchoneros.

When taking a look at Diego Simeone’s side, it is quite easy to see that they aren’t underdogs, dark horses or long shots anymore. Atletico Madrid are ready to truly contend for major trophies and could lift silverware as early as two months from now.

The club from the Vicente Calderon boasts one of the best managers in the game, an incredible squad and determination that is unrivaled in Europe. They have everything needed to win trophies this season and must now be taken very seriously.

Will Atletico Madrid win La Liga and the Champions League? It will be very hard to do both, that’s for sure. Can they? Absolutely.

Are Atletico Madrid no longer dark horses? Can they win a major trophy this season? Leave your thoughts and comments below! 

* All statistics are courtesy of WhoScored.com

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