Naturally, Real Madrid and Barcelona have hogged the spotlight in La Liga this term. The struggles of Rafael Benitez, the form of Neymar, the erratic play of Cristiano Ronaldo and an emphatic 4-0 win for Barca over their great rivals have been prominent in the Spanish press during the early stages of the campaign.
The influx of stories surfacing from the Camp Nou and the Santiago Bernabeu have eclipsed almost everything else in the top flight, including the steady, understated progress made by Atletico Madrid.
Casual followers of La Liga may be surprised to hear that Diego Simeone’s side, crowned champions in 2013-14 under remarkable circumstances, trail the Blaugrana by a meager two points as we head towards the winter break and are two points clear of their city rivals in third. Atletico could easily find themselves top of the pile come 2016, too. After this weekend’s round of La Liga fixtures, Barcelona jet off to Japan to fill their obligatory duties as European champions in the Club World Cup. Simeone’s men seem well placed to capitalize.
There were few early signs that Atletico were ready to mount a charge of such significance. They lost their effervescent attacking midfielder Arda Turan to Barcelona in the summer, while Mario Mandzukic, Mario Suarez and Raul Garcia also departed. The big names recruited, including previously prolific forward Jackson Martinez, didn’t hit the ground running.
Yannick Ferreira Carrasco and Luciano Vietto were hit and miss, despite their obvious quality. Going forward, Atleti were striving for incision. With Angel Correa and Oliver Torres also seeking to play more significant roles, the manager, so used to working with a small squad, had a surplus of options. He didn’t seem totally confident with it.
So after some efforts to be more enterprising in their play, including a variety of attacking combinations, Simeone has recently reverted to the kind of principles which saw Atletico seize their surprise title. And once again, it’s working wonders.
The disappointing Martinez, the man many expected to become this team’s target man in the wake of Mandzukic’s sale, has been absent with injury, prompting the manager to utilize a more dynamic attack, with Fernando Torres and Antoine Griezmann dovetailing superbly. It’s allowed Atletico to quickly convert defense into attack.