15th April 2016. By Karl Matchett.
The only real surprise about Atletico Madrid's UEFA Champions League quarter-final win over Barcelona on Wednesday was that it was their first of the season against their Catalan rivals, having outplayed them and been the superior side tactically on all three previous occasions. In all three of those earlier fixtures, Atletico also took the lead-but ended up losing 2-1.
There was little danger of such a recurrence in the second leg in Europe, with Atleti defending with a vigour and determination which made it impossible for Barcelona to break down.
Atleti's overall performance was a 90-minute microcosm of the tactical discipline, organisation and ability to threaten the continent's biggest sides that Diego Simeone has instilled in his team over the past few years-and a huge indication why, along with going the distance in Europe, Atletico are poised and capable of mounting a late rally in La Liga.
Their midweek opposition are, of course, still above them in league play. Barcelona's lead has been whittled away over the past three weeks to a mere three points, but head-to-head ruling dictates that the Catalan side will triumph in the event the teams finish level. It all means that Atletico need two slip-ups from Barcelona in the final weeks of the season, with much resting on the weekend game against Valencia, comfortably the biggest and-on paper, at least-best side that Barca have left to face.
With just one win in the last five games though, Barcelona are lacking in speed of play and in confidence in the final third, and another upset against Los Che is very much a possibility.
For Simeone and Co, who play against relegation-threatened Granada just before Barcelona's fixture, this weekend is a chance to mount the biggest threat to the title in several months; a win would leave Atleti level on points at the top and continue piling on the pressure for the league leaders.
There are few teams in world football who are better suited to hunting down an opponent as the season draws to its silverware-awarding conclusion.
Atletico are clear in their intentions, absolutely sure of themselves with or without the ball and have plenty in their armoury to deal damage. They are the Jason Bourne of the football world with their relentless and single-minded pursuit of a target; the Jurassic Park-style velociraptors of La Liga in bringing down bigger prey with a pack mentality which knows no fear, no outright retreat and no shortage of aggression.
Perhaps crucially at this stage, they are also a team which has not rotated this season so much as continually played those individuals in form; the strongest XI can almost always be named by outsiders due to Simeone's penchant for rewarding those who show consistency with their quality. The manager keeps his troops on full throttle throughout the campaign, knowing Atletico's strength is very much in their intensity, on and off the ball, which encourages all his players to be right on their game every time they take to the pitch-or else replaced.
After the XI there are always three or four just on the fringes of the first team who are fit, in-form and impacting off the bench. Right now, heading into the final stages, it's Thomas, Angel Correa and Lucas Hernandez, the stand-in centre-back who has been imperious in filling in for the injured Josema Gimenez and Stefan Savic.
Fernando Torres has hit top form as he chases a new contract, Gabi and Koke have been on their best runs all season and Filipe Luis has looked back to his best, matching his previous level from his first spell at the club.
They are experienced heads all, capable of winning matches between them and already full of know-how in taking big titles.
Cholo, on the sidelines and on the bench, urges his team on with all the tempo and urgency that he demands his side play at, the crowd respond in kind and Atletico, still a 'smaller' club in the eyes of the general watching world, capture the imagination of those who revel in the big clubs slipping up and not winning the top trophies.
With a Liga title of their own only two years ago, the Europa League and Copa del Rey already conquered and a Champions League trophy snatched from their grasp in 2014 with just minutes to spare, Atletico Madrid are one of Europe's biggest and best. That said, they continue to play the underdog story better than anybody else in the game and it is this, above all else, which makes them the most dangerous opponent to keep at bay when the final weeks of the season are in sight.
A month from now, there shouldn't be any surprise if Atletico Madrid hoist the biggest two trophies aloft, with a Champions League and La Liga double. There shouldn't be, but knowing Simeone, he'll very much hope there is.
Atletico Madrid perfectly placed in La Liga
15th April 2016. By Karl Matchett.