Make no mistake about it, Atletico Madrid are on the radar of every football expert in Europe and week after week they are picking up a sizeable following amongst the average fan. The club has been amassing trophies over the past few years despite selling off some of their more prized assets to European clubs. This summer’s transfer of Radamel Falcao to Monaco will likely be the last time the Atleti lose a major talent to another club. Los Colchoneros have renewed the contracts of their latest crop of talent through the near future and are currently joint-top of the La Liga standings with Barcelona; on pace to hit 100 points in the Primera Division. The Atleti were actually a goal away from breaking Barcelona’s 54-week hold on the top spot in Spain yesterday, but weren’t able to put a fourth goal past ninth place Valencia (Atletico won 3-0). Atletico also easily qualified for the Last 16 of the Champions League by being one of only three teams to go through the group stages of the competition unbeaten (the other two being Real Madrid and Manchester United).
But all of this appears to be news to AC Milan midfielder Sulley Muntari. When asked by an Italian news outlet (Corriere della Sera) who he would pick to face in the Last 16 of the Champions League, the 29-year-old Ghanaian replied: “If they let me choose, [I’d] rather face Atletico, it [is] the weakest opponent.”
Oof…those are words he is going to regret.
More than likely there are still some fans who are still skeptical of Atletico Madrid or who have been unable to see them in action (it’s understandable for US viewers because beIN Sport mainly showcases Barcelona and Real Madrid each week with the La Liga coverage). But for a veteran player at a major Italian side not to be aware of the threat posed by the Atleti is inexcusable and bordering on moronic.
Of course the potential opponents for AC Milan were a virtual “who’s who” of European clubs: Real Madrid, Bayern Munchen, PSG, Atletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Chelsea and Manchester United. There really was no good answer to give to the question of “Who would you pick to play?”
That’s why the best answer would have been: “I am confident in my team and it doesn’t matter who we face. At this point in the competition we will be facing nothing but quality sides.” That would have been a boring answer, but it wouldn’t have made Muntari look foolish and/or rattled the cage of his next opponent.
For those who haven’t seen Atletico play this season, they are a passionate and motivated side who are lucky enough to play in front of some of the most loyal supporters in all of European football. Los Colchoneros feed off of their manager Diego Simeone’s focus and intensity. The Argentinian tactician has choreographed a well-organized side who execute to near-perfection with an overwhelming drive from their talented players. There is a bond between Atletico’s players and their manager that is the envy of many professional sports teams. They all want to work for each other in order to reach an ultimate goal. Atletico Madrid has a vision for Spanish and European glory; and every person in and around the club firmly believes this team can accomplish all of that this season.
Muntari should have known better than to give his opponent added motivation with his comments.
Diego Costa is tied with Cristiano Ronaldo as La Liga’s leading goal scorer with seventeen goals in fifteen matches; he’s averaging a goal every 81 minutes. Sid Lowe of The Guardian has referred to the Brazilian striker as “La Liga’s most decisive player this season” while his own manager simply refers to him as “Beast”. Costa is also partnered up front by Spanish international David Villa who has eight goals and three assists.
Atletico’s midfield boasts one of the most wanted players in Europe, the 21-year-old Spanish playmaker Koke. The young international has been dubbed the “next” Xavi, Iniesta and/or Alonso (take your pick). Koke shares the midfield with the hulking 27-year-old Raul Garcia who has added six goals of his own this season. While their defense is solidified by the stonewall centre-backing pair of Diego Godin and Miranda, with last season’s Zamora trophy winner (the best goalkeeper in La Liga) Thibaut Courtois managing between the goal posts. The 21-year-old Belgian became the youngest award winner in La Liga’s history while setting new club records for the longest runs not conceding a goal.
According to the latest UEFA club coefficients rankings, Atletico are the eighth best team in Europe; two places ahead of AC Milan. When asked his thoughts on the Champion League draw and Muntari’s statement, Atletico Madrid’s Raul Garcia had this to say: “We know that people have a lot of respect for us. Muntari has said he’d prefer to get us and well, he’s got what he wants now and they’ll have to beat us if they want to get into the next round.”
“We’re confident in ourselves. I think the team knows how to play over two legs. We’re a tough team to beat. We’ve already shown well enough what we can do and be it Milan or anyone else, we’ll stand up to them for sure. We’ll go into the first-leg with the aim of doing well and getting a good result, logically knowing that playing the second-leg at home, that’s a point in our favour.”
…that’s how you handle a question from the press, Sulley.
You’re going to regret what you wished for.