Atletico Madrid - The biggest roadblock in the path of Champions League favourites
Any team, that aspires to emerge at the end of the season with the Champions League trophy will have to go through a Murderer’s Row of challenges, beginning this February in the Round of 16. A number of marquee clashes pitting powerhouses of European football against each other make it one of the most awaited knockout rounds in recent memory.
Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Chelsea were perceived to be the favourites, with teams like Juventus, Barcelona and Manchester City considered a rung below them. For some reason, Atletico have never been placed amongst the very top rung of contenders. It’s almost as if players, managers and fans alike just do not want to acknowledge their presence among the elite of European football.
Indeed, the blind spot that people associated with football seem to find Atleti mired in is evident from the fact that not a single player from their squad was awarded any of La Liga’s prizes for last season, despite their triumph in the league. Or the fact that none of their players found a spot in the FIFPRO World XI for 2014, even as mercurial David Luiz and a sub-par Iniesta were voted in. Even Diego Simeone was snubbed in the FIFA Coach of the Year voting despite being possibly the best candidate.
We take a look into the reasons why every single team remaining in the Champions League should be wary of the ‘other team’ from Madrid.
However well Jose Mourinho has been able to set his lineup this season, and despite the reinforcements that Bayern Munich brought in last summer in the form of Benatia, Bernat and Xabi Alonso, Atletico Madrid remain one of the best defences in the world. This, despite losing Filipe Luis to Chelsea in the summer, who was arguably Europe’s best left back last season.
From the moment they lose the ball to the moment they wrest it back, Atletico barely put a foot wrong in the defensive sense. When the opponents get the ball deep in their own half, the strikers and midfielders are onto defenders like a piston while the entire team pushes up in the effort to regain the ball.
When the ball is lost closer to the half-line, one of the two strikers or wingers is always on to it, while the rest of the team gets back into the defensive half and forms two banks of four each, leaving little room for opponents to manoeuvre the ball through.
Simeone seems to have brought in a Marine-like defensive discipline. Whenever any player is out of position, the rest of the team re-adjusts instantly, knowing exactly where to get to and how to react. Even in transition, they seem to be covering their bases perfectly. It takes moments of genius to break through their defense when Atletico are on their game.
Ability to counter-attack at speed
The amount of work that Atletico put in on the less glamorous side not only keeps them in the game, it helps fashion opportunities going forward too. Pressing high up the pitch yields opportunities to break through an unsettled defence, while on the occasions that they’re pegged back in their own half, opportunities to go on the counter come thick and fast.
In a line-up where Koke and Arda Turan are playing on the wings while Antoine Griezmann plays as the second striker alongside Mandzukic, there is no shortage of pace to burn. Griezmann in particular has been phenomenal over the last month or so, having settled into life at his new club. His pace is their biggest asset on the counter, and combined with the link-up play that Koke and Turan provide plus Mandzukic’s poacher instincts, Atletico have a very good recipe for goals.
The return of Fernando Torres has already served to provide them a boost as he scored two goals against Real Madrid, and they would be hoping that he continues in the same vein.
Strength from set-piece situations
Even if it wasn’t known very clearly based on the evidence of the season thus far, in which Atletico have scored over 20 goals from set-pieces alone, judging by the players in the squad and in the line-up, it wouldn’t be a big leap to speculate about this team’s ability from set pieces.
Diego Godin, Joao Miranda and now, Gimenez – Atletico’s 3 best centre backs – are towering figures who represent a threat from most set piece situations. Godin scored crucial goals from set-pieces just last season, a fact all Barcelona fans can attest to. The rest of the line-up too is dominated by players with great aerial ability, like Mandzukic, Raul Garcia and Tiago.
Combined with the deliveries provided by Gabi, Turan and Koke, Atletico are by far Europe’s most dangerous team from set-piece situations. Not a moment’s rest is afforded to opposition defences when they concede free-kicks and corners.
Simeone’s tactical nous
In the Champions League quarter-finals last season, Atleti were pitted against Barcelona with the first leg at the Camp Nou. They managed to survive the Barcelona onslaught in the first leg and came away with a 1-1 draw courtesy Diego Ribas’ screamer from 30 yards out.
At home, Atletico were in their element. They exploited Barcelona’s propensity to start games slowly and exposed them ruthlessly on a number of occasions in the first 20 minutes. It was a wonder, in fact, that they only came away with a 1-0 win from the lopsided game.
In the second leg of the semi-final against Chelsea, they piled on the pressure against Chelsea after going behind. The pressure applied on Chelsea’s suspect defence bore fruit as they came away with a famous 3-1 win at Stamford Bridge. Jose Mourinho had been emphatically outwitted.
Simeone has a great capacity to sense the opposition’s moments of weakness, and Atletico are fully equipped to take advantage of such situations to go on and win games.
Over 2 legs against any team, they possess the wherewithal to dismantle any challenge that falls their way. Their style of play, organization and effectiveness is unaffected by whether the match is taking place home or away, something which very few teams in the world can claim. Even Bayern, Real Madrid and Chelsea play guarded football in away games and look more assured at home.
Their in-your-face, unrelenting and uncompromising style of play makes them very tough opponents and no team would want to face them. It doesn’t seem to be so, but Atletico Madrid are the team to beat in this season’s Champions League, even though there are teams loaded with more talent all over the pitch.