Ahead of the 2013-14 season, Real Madrid and Barcelona were involved in an arms race in the transfer window.
Having won the title the campaign before, the Blaugrana were keen to preserve some distance between themselves and their great rivals, signing Neymar in a huge deal from Santos. Los Blancos, seeking to close the gap under new manager Carlo Ancelotti, made a massive statement, landing Gareth Bale for a world record fee from Tottenham Hotspur.
A blockbuster campaign looked set to be in store between the two biggest names in Spanish soccer; Atletico Madrid went on to win the title, having sold the finest No. 9 in world football, Radamel Falcao, before the big kick-off.
It’s the finest achievement of Diego Simeone’s managerial career and arguably one of the best title triumphs of all time. His side were immaculate in defense and mechanically efficient going forward, with Diego Costa’s firebrand forward play giving the Rojiblancos the edge in tight contests. They were a force to be reckoned with and a team that were a mirror image of their manager.
That side was taken apart, though. Thibaut Courtois, Filipe Luis — now back at the club — , Miranda, Arda Turan and Costa have all moved elsewhere. And yet, while the top two in Spain as well as a clutch of sides on the continent have continued to replenish in lavish fashion, Atletico have remained competitive under the man known as Cholo.
This season, they could still win the league title. After their win over Rayo Vallecano on Saturday, they remain level on points with Barca with a couple of games left. More heroics on Tuesday night, completing 2-2 aggregate triumph on away goals against German juggernauts Bayern Munich, saw them book a spot in the final of the Champions League.
With Atletico in what’s their second Champions League final in the space of three seasons, it’s time to consider their effervescent manager amongst the greatest in the game’s history.
Not only has Simeone already won a plethora of honors with this team—the Europa League (2012) and Copa del Rey (2013) paved the way for the title triumph—but he’s had to tear it up and start again on a couple of occasions. To compound these tasks, he’s had to conduct these rebuilding jobs in a league containing the two most illustrious football teams on the planet.
To bust that duopoly in itself is a stunning achievement. To do so twice in the space of three years is nothing short of incredible.
It’s the persona of Simeone himself which has such a profound effect on the soccer club too. Having been a player at the Calderon when Atletico won the title in 1996, he’s not only immersed in the fabric of the football club, he knows what’s required to get over the line. And it’s a winning mentality which pulses through his players.
Of course, this can occasionally mean bending the rules, as was evident when a ballboy tossed a ball onto the pitch with Malaga breaking against Atletico in a recent game, an action the Spanish FA deemed Simeone responsible for. Nevertheless, they’re antics which add to the cult of personality the 46-year-old has forged in the capital.
It’s why the atmosphere at the Calderon has become as fervent as it is too. Simeone kicks every ball and lives every tackle on the sideline, waving his arms to conduct the crowd. Even after five years in the job, the supporters respond to his way of doing things.
So do the players. As a coach, Simeone’s influence has been hugely underplayed. Looking at the side which beat Bayern 1-0 last week, Stefan Savic — bombed out by Manchester City — and Fernando Torres — who looked long finished before this season — both shone. Cholo draws every ounce he can from his troops.
The next generation are being forged in his image too. Saul Niguez is already one of the best box-to-box midfield players in world soccer, Jose Maria Gimenez has made tremendous progress as a center-back and as was the case with Thibaut Courtois under Simeone, Jan Oblak has made stunning improvements as a young goalkeeper.
Simeone has taken a knife into a gunfight on so many occasions and emerged the victor. He’s beaten Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea, topped Ancelotti’s Real in the league and nullified Luis Enrique’s stunning Barcelona team this term. Now he’s beaten Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich machine too.
Of course, Atletico could feasibly finish the season with nothing, with Barca still leading the way in La Liga and a major test to come at the San Siro. But Simeone has added to his legacy again this term and if his status as a great isn’t set in stone already, should the Rojiblancos win their maiden Champions League title, it surely will be.
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