Just three weeks ago Atletico Madrid led the Spanish league table with a promising gap of 10 points. And while Real Madrid and Barcelona have faltered and failed to maintain stability, most commentators have already crowned the Colchoneros as confident champions.
The one who did not get carried away to the early celebrations was Diego Simeone. Clearly, the Atletico coach is preaching to anyone who just wants to hear his mantra, that for him there is only one way to live football – “Partido a Partido” – game after game.
And besides, as someone who has lived Atletico for so many years, both as a player and as a coach, who like him knows that in this team nothing comes easily, and always has to suffer on the way to happiness, which in many cases does not come at all. So yeah, until a few weeks ago everything looked great at Wanda Metropolitano, especially after the 2: 4 win over Cadiz, with a pair of Luis Suarez.
It was the team’s eighth consecutive league victory. In fact until then it had won 15 of its previous 16 games, with the only fault being the 2-0 loss to Real Madrid in the derby. It was also the only loss for Simeone and his players since the start of the league. As usual in the Holy of Holies, by the end of January Atletico presented the best defense in Europe. Until the game against Cadiz (2: 4), Slovenian goalkeeper Jan Oblak has conceded just 8 goals in 18 games. So Cadiz Atletico easily defeated, but the two goals it conceded were supposed to be a warning sign. Only at that moment no one took it seriously.
Then came “Black February,” which began with the home game against Salta Vigo – and where something unexpected and mostly uncharacteristic happened. After Suarez added another pair to his tally and Atletico led 1: 2, Pecondo Pereira from Salta equalized 2: 2 in the 90th minute. If there’s one thing Culo’s team specializes in, it’s to maintain the advantage it holds. Absorb an equalizer in the 90th minute? This has not happened to her since the Champions League final in 2014 against Real Madrid.
This warning sign, which had already led to the loss of two precious points, could not be missed. And it turns out it was no accident. After a close victory over Granada came two close games, three days apart, against the humble Levante. Although Atletico were better in the 180 minutes, they finished the first game against Levante 1: 1 and lost the second 2: 0.
And so, in less than two weeks, Atletico lost 7 of the 12 points that were on the shelf. And no less problematic: she has conceded seven games in a row. And that’s something that never happened in Simeone’s years in the team. It must be said, the accumulation of 50 of the first 57 points of the season, was not reasonable. Atletico are a good team, but not so much. And it could be that what’s happened in the last few weeks, is to put some logic into the madness, to go back to proportions.
Simeone did not want this to happen, but was not surprised, also because his staff was very diluted, due to injuries and Corona. In each of the last four games, no more than 16 players from the senior squad were available. Luckily for Cello, the unfortunate Barcelona continues to bleed points and they will probably no longer be able to threaten him in the 14 rounds left to finish. But this is not the case with Real Madrid, who, although going through a mediocre season by its standards, still managed to narrow the gap to only 3 points. Although it should be remembered that Atletico has a game in hand.
As it now appears the fate of the championship depends on one game, the one that will arrive in just 12 days: the Madrid derby, which will be hosted by Atletico. Before that, the leader has a difficult away game against Villarreal, when Real Madrid will host Sociedad. Nothing will be finally closed in the derby on March 7, but if Atletico manages to recover from the crisis and win, it will be very difficult to prevent them from winning the championship. Real’s victory – and the momentum will pass completely to Zinedine Zidane’s team.
The truth is that Atletico has been in this movie before, “Black February” which threatened to ruin its fantastic season. Even seven years ago the Colchoneros led the table in the middle of the season and fans began to fantasize about a first championship after 18 years. But then came surprising losses against the weak Osasuna and Almeria and the gap against Barcelona was almost erased.
That season came to the most dramatic end possible, when in the last round Barcelona hosted Atletico in front of 98,000 excited spectators at the Camp Nou. Barça knew then that a victory would give them the championship. And when Alexis Sanchez scored in the first half, there seemed to be tears of pain and disappointment again on the red-and-white side of Madrid. And then it happened. Early in the second half Diego Godin hit an equalizer, which was worth a historic championship.
But before she returns to the league struggles, a huge test of character awaits her tonight: the first game in the quarter-finals of the Champions League against Chelsea. For Atletico fans, the double encounter against the Blues brings them back to that memorable season seven years ago. So the two teams met in the semi-finals and after a frustrating 0: 0 in Madrid Atletico gave a show in London, won 1: 3 and qualified for the final.
Cello, who was then at the beginning of his career at the club, was the one who decided that tonight’s game would take place at Romania’s National Stadium, in Bucharest, after it could not be held in Madrid due to Corona’s restrictions. So why Bucharest and not a closer city? The coach decided so, because that was where Atletico won the first of its seven titles with him.
On May 9, 2012, just four and a half months after taking a team that was sunk to the bottom of the table and looked like a broken vessel, Simeone led Atletico to a huge victory in the Europa League final. 20,000 fans who flew to Bucharest saw their team defeat Athletic Bilbao 0: 3 in a tremendous purpose display. Colombian Radamel Falcao scored a brace and Brazilian Diego completed the victory, making Atletico, the eternal loser, a huge winner.
By the way, it’s not just that tonight’s game will take place in the same stadium. Atletico also made sure to stay in the exact same hotel where the “InterContinental” was then, almost nine years ago. And there is another “sign” that the Spaniard will successfully go through the double encounter against Chelsea: last season she faced in the quarter-finals against an even stronger English rival, European champions Liverpool, and passed it.
What is certain is that for Atletico to recover from the crisis it is in, only superstitions will not suffice. And there are three players who must get better, and fast: the first, Jan Oblak. He is rightly considered one of the best goalkeepers in the world, and has won the title of “Goalkeeper of the Season” in Spain 4 times. But he is going through a less good period. In the last five games he has conceded 8 goals, and it’s not just because of the defense.
The other, Joao Felix. The Portuguese midfielder, who was acquired a year and a half ago for 120 million euros, opened the season great. In the first 11 games he had seven goals and three assists. It seemed that after the not-so-simple debut season, he was getting into the right pace. But in recent games he is disappointing again. In the last 13 games he has scored only once.
And last but not least, Luis Suarez. Everything has already been said about the terrible mistake Barcelona made that allowed one of its biggest stars to leave for nothing, and another one of its big rivals. Suarez is an amazing success story. 16 goals in 20 league games is a tremendous balance that only one player can match in the Spanish league – his good friend Leo Messi.
But after scoring seven goals in four games, in the last three games he has been unable to find the net. For other strikers it is not dramatic, but for Suarez it is the longest drought he has had since joining the team in the summer. Tonight in Bucharest, Suarez will not only try to end the drought – but also score his first goal of the season in the Champions League. But the most important thing will be to help Atletico get back on the winning track, which should end the discussion on “Black February” also in connection with the championship fight.