There was an unmistakeable arrogance about Atletico Madrid as they took apart city rivals Real Madrid 4-0 at the Vicente Calderon on Saturday. It wasn’t the kind of flash haughtiness that’s associated with Los Blancos either. Instead, Diego Simeone’s side showcased a simple, serene assurance throughout the contest.
It was the kind of cockiness that saw that Spanish champions excel even after star midfielder Koke hobbled off. It was the type of mentality that prompted Tiago—who opened the goalscoring—to take a quick free-kick in stoppage time, as Atletico chased a manita, a win by a five-goal margin. It was a brand of brashness befitting of a team that haven’t lost in six meetings with Real this season.
When you consider Atletico’s Derbi fortunes just shy of two years ago, it represents a staggering turnaround. Between 1999 and 2013, they hadn’t beaten their local rivals in a single match, adding further credence to their reputation as El Pupas, the jinxed ones. But a win in the final of the 2013 Copa del Rey at the Santiago Bernabeu over Real seem to free Atletico of those issues that have long hampered them.
Since that match, Atletico have gone from strength to strength under Simeone and their newfound confidence in these derby matches is astonishing. But none of their most recent triumphs over Real emitted quite as much conviction as this 4-0 humbling.
Atletico were better in every single facet of their play. The European champions were overrun throughout the course of the 90 minutes, outplayed in dangerous areas of the field and had their brightest attacking talents completely nullified. Real couldn’t muster a shot on target in the entire match and the only three times they’ve failed to find the back of the net this season have come at the Calderon.
“They beat us in every respect,” said Carlo Ancelotti in the aftermath. “In fight, play, organization, motivation, attitude. We all failed, we lost all the tackles, all the aerial battles. No Madrid player had a good game. They were better in everything. We were worse in everything.”
It’s this coalescence of fundamental footballing attributes carried out with such merit that makes Atletico such an endearing side to watch. Of course, players like Antoine Griezmann, Koke and Arda Turan are aesthetic talents, but the ethos of this team harbors an underpinning diligence, cohesive and an irrepressible intensity that makes them one of the most formidable sides on the continent.
We all love moments mercurial inspiration, but the basic functionality Atletico is a joy to behold and something that the soccer stratosphere should appreciate in unanimity. The ethos is isn’t what you’d typically associate with the Spanish champions—if anything, their principles are quintessentially British in their roots—but the mantras deployed have yielded an array of successes.
It could have been so different for Atletico this season too, especially after losing critical men like Thibaut Courtois, Filipe Luis and Diego Costa in the summer. Indeed, after Borussia Dortmund’s unexpected renaissance saw them finish as runners-up in the Champions League in 2013, they’ve been on a downward spiral since, failing to fill the void left by the departures of Mario Gotze and Robert Lewandowski. Simeone’s side could have easily gone the same way.
But Atletico have invested the money accrued from summer sales with distinction. The likes of Griezmann, Mario Mandzukic and Guilherme Siquiera have slotted seamlessly into this side, taking on the bespoke principles of Simeone with apparent ease. The emergence of young talents like Saul Niguez and Jose Gimenez have also been a major bonus to their cause.
The cornerstone triumph over Real hauled Atletico back into the title race and with the momentum gathered from such an emphatic victory, they boast impetus aplenty to remain in the hunt until the season’s end. It’ll also be intriguing to see how they fare in the Champions League and whether they have the class to sample glory in a competition they came so close to winning last season.
There’s definitely room for improvement in this team too. Often when things aren’t going their way the players and manager can lose their head, illustrated emphatically during their recent Copa del Rey loss to Barcelona. They’re also occasionally profligate in front of goal, while between the sticks—whether it be Miguel Moya or Jan Oblak—they’re yet to replicate the influence of the immaculate Courtois.
But you suspect Simeone—whose team embody his ferocious aura—will continue to refine, as he’s done throughout his tenure as boss. Just look at how he’s moulded Griezmann into an effervescent center-forward already, how Mandzukic has blossomed as a replacement for Costa and how Gimenez—just 19 years old—has excelled in a system that is founded on unrelenting defensive acumen.
The performance against Real was just about as close to perfect as it gets for Atletico, though. For so long, this was a football club that wilted at the sight of those iconic all white strips, whereas now, the prospect of going up against Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema et al seems to stir something in the players, manager and fans.
Those Atletico supporters who had to endure those 14 barren years, the pupas jibes and the constant struggle to emerge from their great rivals’ shadow will feel this is a run of results that’s long overdue. They will take immense comfort from the fact that at this juncture, they are the dominant force in what was once a hopelessly lopsided rivalry.
Follow Matt on Twitter @MattJFootball
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