Atletico’s title miss

LAST week in the Spanish Liga, a crowd of little more than 15,000 fans gathered in Pamplona to see one of the most surprising results of the season so far. Atlético Madrid, who had been keeping pace neck-and-neck with the perennial title challengers Barcelona and city rivals Real Madrid, slumped to a dispiriting 3-0 defeat at Osasuna. Although Barca also suffered a shock defeat, it could mean the end of Atléti’s title challenge ahead of what will be one of the most crucial Madrid derbies in years this weekend at the Vicente Calderon.

Carlo Ancelotti’s men have a considerable spring in their step having trounced Schalke 6-1 away from home in the Champions League and seen both of their title rivals slip up in what should have been comparatively regulation wins for the two sides. Cristiano Ronaldo has continued the stunning form which won him the Ballon d’Or, and Gareth Bale has also kicked things up a notch with a superb strike against the unfortunate Germans. Bale’s form at the club since his wallet-busting move from Spurs over the summer has been inconsistent but he has consistently punctuated some indifferent performances with an array of scorching goals which have kept the fans happy. His priceless ability to create something out of nothing however he is performing could be a key asset when the two Madrid sides meet this Sunday.

Perhaps the scariest thing about Los Merengues is that they can be talked about so much and still barely scratch the surface on talents like Isco, Jese Rodriguez and Bale’s old Spurs teammate Luka Modric. Without the divisive influence of Jose Mourinho, Madrid have no distractions from football and are in prime position to take either the league title or their coveted ‘Decima’, an unprecedented tenth Champions League title – if not both. If Atlético don’t pick up from their recent poor spell of form, they could be in for a beating like the one Schalke were subjected to on Wednesday night.

A defeat of any sort for Atlético would surely mean the end of their title challenge, leaving them six points behind Real and potentially three behind Barca, who face Almeria at home on Sunday. The last time a team outside of the big two won the title was 10 years ago, with Valencia finishing five points clear at the top. An eight-point swing doesn’t seem particularly likely, and it is very rare that a team in Spain get more than a season or two to genuinely challenge for the title before their stars are picked off by more established heavyweight clubs; after their glorious 2003-04 triumph, Valencia finished the following season in seventh, missing out on what was then still the UEFA Cup.

This is something that Atlético fans will be more familiar with than most, as they have had a succession of truly world-class players over recent years, all of whom have left. Forwards like Fernando Torres, Sergio Aguero, Diego Forlan and Falcao have all left having realised that they stood a better chance of success elsewhere. That said, the club spent very little of the fee they received for Falcao over the summer, so they have the ability to add to their squad. Champions League revenue will do them no end of good, so for once fans of the Rojiblancos could see their side start the following season with more stars than they did the previous. Diego Costa is a man in form and a man in demand, but Atlético president Enrique Cerezo has stated “I don’t believe Diego Costa is leaving the club next season, we won’t sell him next season” – perhaps he is finally trying to realise his ambitions to take Atlético to the next level. He can only hope the Brazilian, hoping to play for Spain, has an unspectacular World Cup.

Diego Costa is by no means a one-man team, with a supporting cast of David Villa, Koke and Diego Godin all impressing this season, but one blow that they are likely to suffer is the loss of on-loan goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois back to parent club Chelsea. Courtois has emerged as not only the best young goalkeeper in the world but a serious contender for Manuel Neuer’s throne as the best in the world outright. It seems a shame that such a talent may not be playing much first team football next season, but Jose Mourinho has revealed that he doesn’t believe he will be allowed to leave on loan again. Possibly more so than Costa given Atlético’s knack for finding quality forwards, Courtois will be a huge miss next season.

Atlético have been a popular second team for many football fans this year and rightly so, but it could be another case of the step up to the Barcelona-Real Madrid level being just too high a standard to reach. With thirteen points worth of breathing space between themselves and Athletic Bilbao, some would advise Diego Simeone to recognise his squad’s limitations and focus on the Champions League, where they have a 1-0 lead and an away goal advantage over AC Milan. They are not far off the level Borussia Dortmund were at last season when they swept to the final and they certainly have a similarly formidable team spirit. It is not an impossible task for them to win it; their status as dark horses and something of an unknown force on the big stage could work in their favour. For Atlético fans, at least, there could be no feeling sweeter than delaying Real’s obsessional chase of a tenth Champions League trophy. Don’t rule them out just yet.

SamFrance

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