Pitchside

Annus mirabilis sees Atleti finally pick up the winning habit

Pitchside Europe

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AC Milan didn’t want Atletico Madrid. Nobody did in the last 16 of the Champions League. The most exciting team in Europe so far this season, Diego Simeone’s side are joint leaders in a league written off as the most one-sided duopoly in world football.

The team which finished third in Spain were expected to be 20 or 30 points behind Barcelona and Real Madrid. As the season nears its halfway stage, Atletico head the table with Barcelona and sit five points above their grand neighbours from the north side.

Everyone expects Atletico to fall away at some point, but they can’t stop winning, even at the Bernabeu. When they met Barca in the Spanish Super Cup in August, they went toe-to-toe with the Catalans and drew twice.

“We deserved to win both of those games,” David Villa told me when I spent a day at Atletico’s training ground recently. The mood was incredible, the team spirit indomitable.

Atletico have grand plans for a new stadium and training ground. Their Calderon home is fraying and their training ground has a gym in what looks like a lock-up garage. But the players didn’t seem to mind as they walked across a car park to it, past a fleet of modest red club Golfs which almost every player uses.

Among those in the car park between the changing room and the gym was a suave elderly gentleman in a suit. He’s an Atletico Madrid fan and comes to training most days, where the players glad hand him like a kindly uncle.

He’s also Atletico Madrid’s most famous player. He may not have the profile of Real Madrid legend Alfredo di Stefano, but then Atletico do not match Real’s status. Adelardo is Atletico’s club’s record appearance holder with 401 league games between 1959-1976, when he was 36.

He was the captain of the team which won the 1962 Uefa Cup Winner’s Cup and reached the 1974 European Cup final. “We played Bayern Munich in the final in Brussels,” he recalled. “0-0 after 90 minutes. Then Luis Aragones scored in extra time. We were about to be European champions.”

Adelardo shakes his head. Georg Schwarzenbeck, the Bayern Munich defender, hit a speculative long-range shot in the 120th minute. It went in and forced a replay two days later, which Bayern won 4-0. Bayern Munich refused to enter the Intercontinental Cup that year. “My highlight was winning the Intercontinental Cup, we beat Independiente over two games,” recalled Adelardo.

The defeat to Munich summed up Atletico Madrid. 'Pupas' they called them. 'Pupas' means unlucky, an apt adjective given all the club has gone through. Even the son who asks his father “Why do we support Atleti?” in a much aired TV advert is not afforded an answer. Because there is not one. They just do. Former player Fernando Torres said their fans were “a prisoner to a feeling.”

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“Everyone said Atleti had the players to be a good team, but not a great one,” recalls former striker Diego Forlan. “It’s true that we had to be 100 per cent perfect to win a game. If we were only 99 per cent, we’d lose.

“There was too much negativity about in the psyche of the supporters and that fed into the players. We’d get a good away win and then the fans were convinced that we’d lose an easy home game a few days later because that’s what Atleti did.

“And you know what? We did lose because some players believed the fatalism. They were used to failure. I tried to be positive, tried to help change the mentality and we had some success.”

Forlan played with the likes of Sergio Aguero, David de Gea, Simao and Jose Antonio Reyes. They won trophies. “Great players,” he says. “They didn’t care about the pupas thing or what the journalists said.
“They were winners and we won trophies. Our generation broke the mystique.”

They did. They won the 2010 Europa League final, with Forlan scoring both goals. They lifted the Uefa Super Cup in Monaco. The psyche of the club was changing, but those memories of failure went back a long way.

The final change came when Diego Simeone took charge in December 2011. Tenth when he arrived, they finished fifth. They also won the Europa League again, and the Uefa Super Cup when Radamel Falcao destroyed Chelsea. Fans idolise the manager; players value Simeone’s communication skills.

“He has these small, concise conversations with the team; one-minute conversations, every two, three days to try to get into our heads, always focusing on the present, never the future,” says full-back Filipe Luis.

Atletico started last season well, then faded, but their 76-point total was unmatched by any third-placed team in 15 years. It was still 24 points behind 100-point champions Barcelona and nine behind Real Madrid. Atleti lost all four league games to the big two last season.

That changed this year. In May, Atletico met Real Madrid in the final of the Copa del Rey – at the Bernabeu stadium, too. Implausibly, they won. They beat their neighbours again in the league this season at the Bernabeu and they held Barcelona home and away in the Super Cup.

They have also won 14 of their 16 games. In the Uefa Champions League, they were the first team to qualify for the knockout stage. Their current captain Gabi once called supporting Atleti “a suffering”. Not any more. “Because what’s happening now is incredible,” he says.

It will be difficult hard for Atletico to wrestle the league from Barca or Madrid, both of whom have revenues four times as high, but they are showing no signs of slowing down.

Adelardo recognises their quality and the rest of football is now starting to take notice, too. “2103 has been a magnificent year,” club president Enrique Cerezo said on Tuesday. “Atletico Madrid is in a cycle of being winners.” Don’t we know it.

Andy Mitten (on Twitter: @AndyMitten)

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