In many ways it has been a standout year for Atletico Madrid.
There was another Champions League final—their second in three years, but only the third in their entire history—and a stunning run to get there in the first place, including beating both Barcelona and Bayern Munich along the way.
There was a good, sustained La Liga title challenge, which although never looked convincingly as though it was going to result in them finishing ahead of Barca and Real Madrid, did at least offer the odd suggestion that it might do.
And then at times this season there has been some terrific football, with Diego Simeone’s attempts to revolutionise and broaden the way that his team plays offering up the odd great result—albeit with teething problems.
And as Atletico reach the end of 2016—which was brought to a close in their final match of the calendar year against the minnows Guijuelo in the Copa del Rey on Tuesday night—they’ll do so with a firm eye on the future, albeit without forgetting the past.
They beat the lower-league side 4-1 at the Calderon to wrap up a 10-1 aggregate victory, and that combination of new and old were all on the scoresheet in the first half.
Nico Gaitan, a summer signing who hasn’t quite worked out yet, and Angel Correa, a promising youngster, grabbed the first two goals, before Diego Simeone’s stalwarts Juanfran and Fernando Torres added further strikes before the break.
Guijuelo—playing in their green shirts decorated with images of Iberico ham, which is hugely famous in the region—were simply being feasted upon, and it is to their credit that after the 33rd-minute sending off of Raul Ruiz with the score at 3-0, they only conceded one more goal. Antonio Pino even gave them a moment to savour with a fine looping header over Miguel Angel Moya with 10 minutes remaining. The comeback did not materialise.
Atletico had long since taken their foot off the gas, of course, preferring instead to knock the ball around in midfield as Simeone gave minutes on the pitch to those who have struggled for them this season.
The manager named a far stronger side than many were anticipating, perhaps safe in the knowledge that his team won’t play again competitively for two-and-a-half weeks, and also perhaps because he is still making his mind up about several players and decided that it is better to judge them in match situations rather than just training.
Pretty much every fit and available first-team player bar Diego Godin, Gabi and Antoine Griezmann was in the matchday squad, and there were even late cameos off the bench from Yannick Ferreira Carrasco and Kevin Gameiro—two players who would perhaps think that their team being 10-0 up entitled them to a rest.
But Simeone was clearly seeing it differently.
Neither player has been at the top of his game in recent weeks—and the same can be said for plenty of those who started here—and although playing in a game of football at the Vicente Calderon can never be considered a punishment, it perhaps served as a reminder for a couple of players that they always need to perform, no matter what the circumstances.
Guijuelo were already put to the sword in the first leg, of course, but the 12-minute spell in which Atletico took it from 0-0 to 3-0 here would have been exactly what Simeone was looking for. His team were ruthless, and their manager would have been proud of them for that, even if he left post-match media duties to his assistant German Burgos.
The faithful deputy told his press conference, via Atletico’s official website:
"I think that we have played a good match. We have tried some different positions, but the important thing is to qualify and that the least usual players had minutes too.
"The goal of Atletico de Madrid is to fight for all the objectives. This is our main goal."
And by “least usual” Burgos brings us neatly onto Alessio Cerci.
The Italian’s name had become a laughing stock around the red-and-white half of Madrid due to the completely disastrous Atleti career he’s had ever since joining the club from Torino in a high-profile move in 2014.
There were almost howls of laughter when he came on for Saul Niguez just after the hour mark here—making his first Atletico appearance in over two years, since a match against Villarreal in December 2014. He had been sent off against Valencia shortly before that.
A man once billed as a huge signing for the club had struggled with injury and form issues almost ever since arriving, and yet here he was after loan spells at Milan and Genoa back on the Calderon turf.
A sign that Simeone wants to turn to the 29-year-old Italian to try to spark some sort of unlikely revival for his side in the New Year?
Or more likely that the manager just wanted to remind any interested Serie A sides that the 14-times capped international—and a man who went to the last World Cup with his country—was still around and very much available?
We’ll see how that one pans out, but Cerci’s face doesn’t seem to fit in this fusion of old and new that Simeone now has to make sure clicks into place again in 2017.
Some of his players have done themselves huge favours when it comes to forcing his hand over selection in recent weeks, and some haven’t.
What is clear is that if Atletico’s season is to get better and better then the manager is going to need to start settling on a preferred way of playing and a preferred setup, as it has been a little bit too up in the air of late.
This win over ham-obsessed minnows isn’t going to change anything in the long run, but if this season is to provide a feast for Atletico fans instead of a famine, then huge improvement in 2017 is needed.