Eight matches into last year’s La Liga season, Atletico Madrid were level on points with Barcelona at the top. At the same stage of this campaign, they are in exactly the same position, separated by goal difference having won all of their opening eight league games, 2 points better off than the seven wins and one draw they had recorded last year.
In fact, Atletico’s standing is in much better shape than that. They opened the season with 2 draws with Barcelona which saw them narrowly defeated in the Supercopa via away goals and have complimented their league form with 2 wins out of 2 in the Champions League, making it 15 competitive games unbeaten following on from last season. You have to go back to February and Rayo Vallecano to trace their last defeat on the road, making it 17 games without an away loss in all competitions.
Prior to this season, no La Liga team had won all of their opening eight matches. This year, Barcelona have managed it and so have Diego Simeone’s Atletico, beating Celta Vigo 2-1 in the Vicente Calderon on Sunday to maintain the perfect league record. The Argentine coach, who suggested that the performance was the best during his time at the club, refused to get carried away, saying his men would continue the doctrine of “just going forward with every game”. Though his opposite number on Sunday, Celta’s Luis Enrique, was more optimistic, “If they keep playing at this level it would be silly not to consider them for the title.” he said.
Simeone will now have the chance to re-evaluate over the international break, though if Atletico return to the same ominous form, many more will be convinced to subscribe to Enrique’s claim that Los Colcheneros can indeed be the first side in ten years to break the duopoly of Barcelona and Real Madrid. A genuine title challenge will be the latest mark of the natural progression of Simeone’s reign, from taking over in the December of 2011 with Atletico sitting eleventh, moving them up to fifth and winning the Europa League, to Copa Del Rey winners and qualifiers for the Champions League in third place. Returning to the competition for the first time since 2009 as well as picking up three trophies in little over a year, it has been an extraordinary shift in culture under the feisty Argentine who has installed a winning mentality, an emphasis on the collective and a focus on unrelenting intensity.
The epitome of that intensity is found in Diego Costa, scorer of both goals in the victory over Celta and scorer of ten goals in eight games this season, 2 ahead of Lionel Messi and 3 ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo, as he has inherited the status of the club’s main man from Radamel Falcao. He has already equaled his league tally from last season and after signing a new contract in the summer following interest from Liverpool, the hulking, explosive Brazilian-born striker has emerged from the shadow of the prolific Colombian to ensure “El Tigre” he has not been missed after making the £45 million move to AS Monaco. A bruising forward who combines a goal-scoring touch with ferocious desire and will to win, Costa, best summed up by Arsene Wenger’s comparison to an animal, has thrived since moving from number ten to number nine, striking up a potent partnership with David Villa slotting in behind him.
It is Villa, signed from Barcelona for just under £2 million after he was shunted to the fringes of the Camp Nou, where Simeone’s pragmatic eye for shrewd business can be found, refusing to utilise the fortune gained from Falcao’s exit and instead reinvesting a small fraction of it in a proven Spanish talent who had previously experienced success at the very highest level. Despite pocketing a total of over £60 million in the summer, Simeone spent under half of that securing the likes of Toby Alderwiereld, Joshua Guilavogui, Jose Giminez and Leo Baptistao with the future very much in mind. Of that quartet, there has only been 2 league starts between them so far, there has been no lavish spending, no star acquisitions like Barcelona with Neymar, no Real Madrid-inspired monstrous spending spree and yet they lie level with Barca and 5 points clear of their city neighbours having beaten them in the Bernabeu.
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The main issue for Simeone will be remaining in that position having seen a bright start last year fade away with injuries and squad depletion. They were seven points ahead of Real in January before finishing below them in third, nine points adrift. Barcelona won the league with 100 points, a year after Real Madrid managed a century of points. It is a league where the chasm between the very best and the rest is more pronounced than any other, there is already an eleven point gap between second and fifth place, the peerless fire-power of Real Madrid and Barcelona is likely to see a similar winning points tally of at least 95. Are Atletico realistically in with a chance of staying with them until next May?
Midfielder Koke doesn’t seem to think so yet. Speaking after the 0-1 win over Real, Atletico’s first over their city rivals in 14 years and 25 matches, he said “we’re candidates yes, candidates for the next game”, Simeone’s urgency for feet not to be lifted off the ground clearly transcending on to the players. Koke will have a huge role to play in his team’s fortunes given his excellent start to the season, providing 6 assists and 2 goals, also becoming the team’s best passer with a success rate of 85% over 8 games. His deadly through ball to provide Costa with his winning goal in the Bernabeu was the eleventh occasion the striker had combined with the 21 year old midfielder in his last 19 goals. His excellent form has been rewarded with a call-up to Vincent Del Bosque’s Spain squad for the final World Cup qualifiers this week, he will join La Seleccion for just his fourth cap, alongside militant midfielder Mario Suarez who will hope to gain his third.
Koke stands as the most creative player in the league, though for Atletico, Arda Turan, Miranda, Juanfran, Felipe Luis, Raul Garcia, Gabi, Costa, Villa and Baptistao have all chipped in with assists. That encouragement to create chances has yielded a fluid attacking unit that has got 21 goals so far this season, a figure only bettered by Barcelona. A concern will come in that 10 of them have been scored by one man, the prolific Costa who has scored in seven of the eight league games so far this season; Simeone will have to expect goals from elsewhere, Raul Garcia the next best on 3 not entirely generating confidence should Costa suffer an injury.
It would have been an issue that the Argentine would have taken away from the match with Celta despite him saying he saw “no cracks or potholes in the group”. The home side hit 23 shots, 12 on target, in contrast to Celta’s 3, though only Costa provided the cutting edge, with wayward finishing and the form of visiting ‘keeper Yoel Rodriguez, who saved a penalty from Costa, keeping the score down. Simeone was right to say “we had total control, with numerous scoring chances and a lot of pressure in their half” but he would be aware that without Costa and his deadly form, it would have counted for very little.
At the moment, Costa’s ruthless finishing is leading a supporting cast that is high on production and intent pressing. Arda Turan has been the embodiment of the fierce energy and dynamism that Simeone’s philosophy is based on, partnering Felipe Luis in a highly-talented left-side. On the right, Koke is allowed to drift inside because of the excellent attacking ability of Juanfran whilst centrally, David Villa and Diego Costa, both able to play as advanced or withdrawn forwards, occupy opposition defenders with electric movement and frenetic pace.
Mario Suarez and captain Gabi provide the steel at the base of midfield, holding all the attacking play together with rugged tenacity, tallying 45 tackles and 32 interceptions between them in the games they have appeared alongside each other so far. Behind them, Diego Godin has been a constant alongside Miranda, Juanfran and Felipe Luis, who have all missed one league game each. It is this continuity that has seen Atletico concede just 6 goals, the lowest total in the league this season, building on the 31 they shipped last year, also the lowest total in the division, ensuring Thibaut Courtois, growing into a superb goalkeeper during his time on loan from Chelsea, won the Zamora Trophy, as well as setting a new club record of going 820 minutes without conceding in the comfort of the Calderon.
Though the imperious Falcao has moved on, consistency has been key for Simeone. The defence has remained solid, the midfield has remained disciplined and full of fight whilst the attack has provided the goals. It is a squad that is high on unity and togetherness as well as talent, with the likes of Adrian, Baptistao, Oliver Torres, Rodriguez and Emiliano Insua on hand to provide cover if needed. The fundamentals of Simeone’s Atletico have not changed too much and neither have the results, but the Argentine will be hoping his team can keep them coming throughout the year, this is Atletico’s opportunity to do what so many perceive as impossible.
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