Simeone inspires Atletico’s La Liga charge

7 March 2014

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As the European football calendar enters its final three months, the common premise in Spain of either Barcelona or Real Madrid tasting league success come May is rife once more.

But on the other side of Madrid, Atletico can rightly claim to be part of the title fight this season.

They currently sit in third, three points adrift of league leaders and fierce rivals Real Madrid and two points behind Barcelona with just 10 games remaining.

This is the first time the title race has been this close between three sides since Rafael Benitez guided his Valencia outfit to the championship in 2003/04.

This year, it is Argentine Diego Simeone with a chance at achieving something remarkable.

Atletico’s board, including owner Miguel Angel Gil Marin and president Enrique Cerezo, made the choice to bring the South American back to the club where he won two titles as a player in the 1995/96 season.

His managerial career hadn’t started as brightly, though. Simeone’s first job in Europe was in Italy’s Serie A, where he staved off relegation with Catania. This was followed by a short period at Racing Santander in Spain, where he departed in December 2011 – they were relegated in May the following year with just four wins to their name.

But with three major trophies at his new club in just over a year, Simeone has quickly become a sought after manager around the continent.

He led Atletico to the 2012 UEFA Europa League, the 2012 UEFA Super Cup and the Copa del Rey, beating Real Madrid in the final. Great progress up the Spanish league table since his arrival has been evident. Atletico finished fifth in 2012, third in 2013 (although still 24 points off champions Barcelona) and now find themselves a big title chance in 2014.

It’s an achievement  Fox Sports Football’s Adam Peacock believes is a brilliant story for football.

“It’s actually refreshing to see managers get another crack at a big club after disappointment earlier in their career,” Peacock says.

“It was a massive call to give the Argentine a go given his previous gig, so perhaps those in charge should be taking a bit of the credit for this fantastic season the club is having.”

Peacock also attributes active ownership as a key factor in Atletico’s surprising season.

“Their activity in the transfer market has been key,” Peacock continues. “Even Barcelona realise you can have the best academy system in the world, but still have to dip into the market to top-up with the right players – the glaring example being David Villa.”

The former Barcelona forward joined Atletico in the summer and has added 11 goals for his new side as they fiercely pursue the Primera Division.

The breakout season of fellow forward Diego Costa is another big factor behind Atletico’s rise to the summit.

Questions were asked of the Spaniard’s goal-scoring ability after Radamel Falcao’s departure to Monaco left a big hole, on paper at least, in Atletico’s strike force. But Costa and Villa answered their critics, and like the remainder of the Atletico squad, continue to go toe-to-toe with Real and Barcelona. The pair have added 32 goals and are the most potent strike partnership in the division behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale’s combined total of 33.

The astute signing of Villa – complimented with the ability of Simeone to get the very best out of Costa, who only had 16 goals in 59 Atletico appearances before this season – is just the beginning of a list of brilliant signings from the Argentine.

Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois is enjoying his third brilliant season on loan from Chelsea, new defensive signing Toby Alderweireld from Ajax has fitted in seamlessly at the back, while creative midfielder Diego appears to have found a home in Spain after returning from four years in Germany.

A 14-year winless streak against Real ended last year when Atletico beat their fierce rivals in the final of the Copa del Rey. Atletico now know they can match Real head-to-head, the next task is to achieve a greater consistency than the Galacticos come May.

Luke Sale is a third-year Bachelor of Journalism (Sport) student at La Trobe University and is a staff writer for upstart. You can follow him on Twitter: @lukesale1