Atletico Madrid's Battles with Real, Barcelona Boost Champions League Claims

Tim Collins@@TimDCollinsFeatured ColumnistFebruary 11, 2015


"To be the best, you must beat the best." That was how Heath Chesters of Inside Spanish Football summed up Diego Simeone's message about his team last month. 

The Atletico Madrid manager, though speaking specifically of his team's run of matches in the Copa del Rey against Real Madrid and Barcelona, was inadvertently highlighting Atleti's Champions League credentials at the same time.  

"The only thing that makes you better as a team, is playing against the best and getting yourself a little closer to them, even though that's complicated," Simeone said in late January, via Chesters. "I welcome playing against the best, because it makes you better."

That eagerness to battle with the game's elite partly explains Atletico's outstanding recent record against Europe's heavyweights—some dread such duels; others revel in them. Simeone and his players clearly reside in the latter. 

But there's also another aspect to the Argentinian's comments: It's not just about one's appetite for matches against the best; it's also important how often such contests occur. 

It's why Los Colchoneros are continuing to get "a little closer to" the outfits at the game's pinnacle. They're tussling with the best all the time. They're able, as Simeone puts it, to do "the only thing that makes you better as a team" extremely regularly. 

MADRID, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 07:  Saul Niguez (R) of Atletico de Madrid celebrates scoring their second goal with teammate Arda Turan (L) during the La Liga match between Club Atletico de Madrid and Real Madrid CF at Vicente Calderon Stadium on February 7, 20
Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

This season, the men from the Vicente Calderon have met crosstown rivals Real Madrid on six occasions, across three competitions. Three meetings with Barcelona in the same period have taken their tally of matches against the world's two most powerful footballing institutions to nine in little more than half a season. 

Add last season's tallies—five clashes with Real, six with Barca—and Atletico Madrid have played 20 matches against football's aristocracy in less than two years. For Atletico, the two-legged structure of the Spanish Super Cup and Copa del Rey has been beneficial for testing their mettle amid their recent rise. 

Remarkably, in that 20, they've lost just six. 

Under Simeone, the Atletico mentality is obvious: Put yourself in the cauldron and you'll eventually embrace the fire.

MADRID, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 07:  Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid CF reacts defeated as behind Mario Mandzukic of Atletico de Madrid celebrates scoring their fourth goal with teammates during the La Liga match between Club Atletico de Madrid and Real Madrid
Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

It's why, of all the teams residing outside Europe's financial elite, it's Atletico who are making the biggest on-field gains. Why it's Atletico who, at the moment at least, are closing the gap on Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and the Premier League's top handful on a purely performance basis (you could justifiably argue they've surpassed England's top clubs on the pitch).

Look at Atletico's fixture list at any given point, and there's nearly always a clash with Real or Barca looming. Sometimes even two or three in the space of a couple of weeks. 

It's no wonder Los Colchoneros, guided by Simeone's mentality, continue to build. More than any other aspirational outfit in the game, Atleti continue to test themselves almost monthly against the sides that have monopolised La Liga.

Sides that have won three of the last six Champions League titles. Teams that own the players who've claimed the last seven Ballon d'Or awards. Outfits whose stars dominate teams of the year every year. Clubs flush with World Cup champions. Sporting institutions with more financial might, according to Kurt Badenhausen of Forbes, than anyone else. Across every sport on the planet. 

Thus, though Simeone was the man who forced through a revolution at the Vicente Calderon, it's his team's incessant duelling with Real Madrid and Barcelona that is now fast-tracking the evolution of his new Atletico. 

MADRID, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 07:  Head coach Diego Simeone of Club Atletico de Madrid reacts during the La Liga match between Club Atletico de Madrid and Real Madrid at Vicente Calderon Stadium on February 7, 2015 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Gett
Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Such a scenario, a period of non-stop battles with the sport's powerhouses, enhances Atleti's chances of achieving the club's biggest goal: lifting the Champions League trophy.

It's perhaps the final frontier for Simeone's Atletico. Under his tenure, they've won titles in La Liga, the Europa League, the Copa del Rey, the Spanish Super Cup and the UEFA Super Cup. 

Europe's most coveted crown is the only one needed to complete the set. 

The biggest boost of all? A record of four wins and two draws from six games this season against the competition's current champions. On just that evidence alone, Atletico have a step on their rivals from elsewhere in Europe.

Their round-of-16 opponents, Bayer Leverkusen, don't enjoy the same exposure to the game's elite (they've met Bayern Munich just six times in three years). Elsewhere, Paris Saint-Germain's major rivals in France, and Juventus' in Italy, pale in comparison to Atleti's in Spain. 

And across in England, the recent records of Manchester City and Arsenal in the Champions League against the continent's finest have suggested they're still out of their depth in the deciding rounds. From the Premier League, only Chelsea has thrived in recent years—the side Atletico dismantled at Stamford Bridge in last season's semi-final. 

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 30: Diego Godin of Club Atletico de Madrid celebrates victory with Tiago of Club Atletico de Madrid during the UEFA Champions League semi-final second leg match between Chelsea and Club Atletico de Madrid at Stamford Bridge on Apri
Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

It all means Atletico's Champions League credentials are rising.

Alongside Real Madrid and Barcelona, they enter the knockout phase of the competition as the joint-most battle-tested outfit. The side whose recent record carries more weight than so many of their European opponents because of who it's been compiled against. 

Last season's run to the final was no fluke. Doing the same this time around wouldn't be, either. 

To be the best, you must beat the best. 

Atletico are making ground on Europe's establishment because they continue to do just that. 


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