Historic wins, crushing defeats, love, sweat and tears - How Diego Simeone bridged the gap between two giants in the Spanish capital
Diego Simeone took charge of Atletico Madrid after the sacking of Gregorio Manzano in December 2011, the Madrid club were languishing in 10th place in the league and had just been defeated by third-tier side Albacete in the Copa Del Rey. The Argentinian, who was widely regarded as a club legend for his exploits as a player, was tasked with restoring Atletico Madrid to Europe’s elite.
The pressure on his shoulders couldn’t have been any higher - Barcelona were amidst one of the most successful eras in their club’s history and arch-rivals Real Madrid were having a fantastic season even by their standards. The Jose Mourinho side spearheaded by Cristiano Ronaldo, led the La Liga table since match-day 10 and looked devastating across all competitions.
El Cholo, as he’s referred to, was aware of the task in hand upon taking charge. Atletico Madrid were desperate for a league title as they hadn’t experienced domestic glory since Simeone himself won it as a player back in 1996.
His first season at the club went down as an unwavering success. In the league, Simeone managed to steady the ship as Atletico finished a respectable 5th, narrowly missing out on 4th place by two points to Manuel Pellegrini's Malaga. The Europa League however, turned out to be a pleasant surprise for everyone involved at the club as Atletico went on to win the competition, beating Athletic Bilbao 3-0 in the final.
Europa league glory in his debut season at the club was an encouraging start but Simeone’s real task was to go toe to toe with the best teams in the league, Real Madrid in particular. No team barring Real Madrid and Barcelona had won the La Liga since Valencia did so in 2004/05 and Simeone was desperate to change this.
In the 12/13 season, Atletico made their presence felt to the rest of Europe. Although there were no heroics in the Europa League this time around, they won the Copa Del Rey by defeating Barcelona in the final. Their league form wasn’t too shabby either as Simeone’s men finished 3rd, only nine points below Real Madrid. After years of appointing the wrong manager, Atletico Madrid had finally found the man who would go on to be remembered forever.
“Diego Simeone is the kind of person we want to be in a war.” – Former teammate Patxi Ferreira
Despite finishing 3rd, the gap between the two Madrid rivals reduced considerably and Atletico sent out warning signs to the rest of Europe. Their style of play didn’t quite match the glitz and glamour of Pep Guardiola’s Tiki-Taka in terms of appeal but they developed a reputation of defending deep, making it incredibly difficult to score against them and they did so to devastating effect.
They had the meanest defence in the La Liga in 12/13, conceding a meagre thirty-one goals and over the years, Simeone's sides have broken multiple long standing defensive records. Simeone developed a world class squad with a restricted budget, with match winners all throughout the pitch.
“I don’t want players who want to be the main characters. If you don’t give it your all and I can feel it, someone else will take your place. Nothing is guaranteed, and if you fall asleep, you’re out.”
Simeone’s team personified this as they went on to re-write history together. The 13/14 La Liga campaign would go on to become one of the most exciting seasons in recent history as Atletico Madrid were crowned Champions under sensational circumstances.
Barcelona hosted them at the Camp Nou on the final match-day and Simeone’s men had to avoid defeat in order to win the title. Atletico came from behind through a Diego Godin header, which cancelled out Alexis Sanchez’s first half opener as they clinched their first league title in eighteen years.
After nearly two decades, they had finally re-gained bragging rights in the capital. Diego Simeone’s project at Atletico Madrid was only three years in the making but he had managed to go toe to toe with Real Madrid and come out on top. Atletico knew they couldn’t waste too much time congratulating themselves for securing the league title- they had a Champions League final against Real Madrid to cater to and a victory would have ensured that their season went down in club history as the greatest ever.
It was also the first final in the history of the competition to be contested by two teams from the same city. Simeone’s men fell desperately short this time. Having lead for large parts of the game, Atletico almost had the win in the bag but Sergio Ramos equalized with virtually no time left on the clock to force extra time. Atletico were visibly exhausted and Real Madrid punished them emphatically, adding three goals in ET to win the game 4-1.
Los Rojiblancos didn’t get their hands on Europe’s most coveted prize and the Champions League would elude Simeone again in 2016 when Atletico were again runners up, interestingly against Real Madrid once again but ever since he took charge, Atletico have always been in the mix for the biggest prize.
Simeone has never finished a full season in-charge of Atletico below third place and his side have remained consistent in Europe. The long-term stability that they craved for had finally arrived and they had managed to bridge the gap between themselves and their local rivals.
Star players have come and gone, Barcelona and Real Madrid have changed managers a combined nine times between them since El Cholo took charge but his team of warriors have kept improving as the seasons progressed. Atletico can by no means compete with other European heavyweights in the transfer market but Simeone has built star studded squads through the years thanks to some astute spending.
In his seven-year tenure at the club, he’s won as many as seven trophies and this makes for impressive reading. The Vicente Calderon was Atletico’s home since the mid-60s and plans to move in to a new stadium had been ongoing since 2006 but under Simeone’s leadership, Atletico Madrid seamlessly transitioned to their new home that is the Estadio Metropolitano.
Incidentally, the Wanda Metropolitano as its also referred to, is set to host the Champions League final this year. Maybe Simeone can get his hands on the Champions League trophy this time around? Doing it on their own turf would be the icing on the cake, mind you!
After Simeone’s arrival, Real Madrid have only won one more league title than his side. Granted, this isn’t anything to be proud of but the Madrid based club are relevant once again and always have a say in the title race- the La Liga is no longer a two-horse race. Nobody knows what the future holds but Atletico have returned to Europe’s elite under Simeone’s leadership and have firmly established themselves as one of the best clubs in world football.
Diego Simeone has overseen a squad overall, won a league title after nearly two decades, won numerous other accolades domestically as well as in Europe and most importantly, they’ve made it clear that there are two giant clubs in the Spanish capital - Atletico Madrid are back in the big time and are a force to be reckoned with.