Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone has repeated time and time again that his team lives “game by game.” That has been the Argentine’s philosophy since he took over leadership of the club two years ago.
Every day, Los Colchoneros train for an intense 45 minutes with Simeone overseeing the entire process, and they train the same way they play, they put everything on the pitch. Unlike their La Liga rival Barcelona, Atletico’s style of play isn’t ‘beautiful’, but they are a tactically sound and fiercely passionate side.
That passion was on full display Sunday night in the Vicente Calderón Stadium. On an evening when Atletico Madrid honored the life and contributions of former Rojiblanco player and coach Luis Aragonés, the Atleti put forth a typical gritty performance that sent the 49,000+ in attendance into raucous celebrations after they defeated Real Sociedad, 4-0.
The win, coupled with Barcelona’s 3-2 home-loss to Valencia on Saturday, catapulted the Atleti into first place in La Liga; knocking the Catalan giants out of the Primera Division’s top spot for first time in 59 rounds.
Having already beaten Real Madrid in Estadio Bernabeu and drawn at home with Barcelona, Atletico Madrid now has first place all to themselves for the first time this season; 57 points after 22 La Liga matches.
Los Colchoneros ascent has been on display for the past four years. In spite of selling some of their most prized assets, the Atleti have won two Europa League titles, two UEFA Super Cups, and a Copa del Rey title over the last four season. They are currently in the Last 16 of the Champions League and were one of only three teams to go through group stages of the European competition undefeated.
Cynics have been waiting for the Primera Division to turn back into a ‘two horse race’ between Barcelona and Real Madrid. But match after match, Diego Simeone and Atletico Madrid continue to impose their collective will on La Liga opponents and are showing no signs of letting up.
Atletico’s squad isn’t deep and the club’s wealth is dwarfed by league rivals, Barcelona and Real Madrid. Following their draw against Barcelona early in January, Diego Simeone acknowledged the gap between his club and the La Liga giants: “We have a lot of respect for Barca. There’s the small matter of a €400 million ($539.2m) difference in budget, between us and Barca. With the tools we have, we’ve battled and fought to be where we are and that’s really good.”
Despite the gap in talent and wealth, the Atleti feature a starting eleven which is made up of some of Europe’s most wanted talents. The individuals who comprise Atletico’s first team all share the characteristics and traits set forth by Simeone. They have a relentless work rate that covers every blade of grass on the pitch.
A former midfielder, Simeone has described his playing style as that of a man “holding a knife between his teeth.” And perhaps no Atletico player symbolizes the manager’s playing philosophy more than striker Diego Costa.
Costa is supremely gifted forward who is also known for being an ‘agitator’. At times, his body language and facial expressions lead one to believe that he is seconds away from punching an opposing player.
Two weeks ago, television cameras caught the striker sinking his finger in Sevilla defender Federico Fazio’s mouth while the two were jostling for position (Costa was then punched in the stomach). The striker was involved in the Atleti’s opening goals against Real Sociedad on Sunday, assisting David Villa for the first while scoring a breakaway goal of his own for Los Rojiblancos’ second.
Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal have all been linked with Costa, who has tallied 45 goals in his last 66 appearances (all competitions), including 20 goals in 22 La Liga games this season. Costa has also switched his football allegiance from Brazil to Spain. The result of that decision should see the Brazilian-born forward finding a place on Spain’s World Cup roster this summer.
Despite the ongoing transfer rumors and hysteria amongst their supporters, Atletico Madrid has maintained their ‘game by game’ focus. The club’s success to date is a credit to the leadership of Diego Simeone who will ultimately be recognized as one of the world’s best managers at the conclusion of this season (FIFA scandalously left his name off of its most recent Coach of the Year list). And of course recognition has to go to the talented, passionate players who comprise the Atleti’s squad sheet.
If recent history has proven anything, Atletico won’t be resting on their laurels. First place in La Liga on February 2nd is a fantastic accomplishment, but there’s a Copa del Rey semi-final to prepare for against rival Real Madrid on Wednesday…not much time for celebrating.
But Diego Simeone and Atletico Madrid don’t waste much time patting themselves on the back for recent accomplishments.
As the battle-hardened Argentine has stated: “We live game-by-game”