Shackled Atletico pin title hopes on squad unity
By Richard Martin
REUTERS - Atletico Madrid will have to rely on their renowned team spirit and collective strength this season as they aim to keep up with front runners Barcelona and Real Madrid while shackled by a transfer ban.
Atletico have consolidated their status as the third force in Spain ever since Diego Simeone took over in 2011 and revitalised the ailing club.
Chances of a repeat of their remarkable title win in 2014, however, look slim without new additions to a squad which finished 15 points behind champions Real last season.
There is still plenty of optimism about the campaign, which will see the club begin a new era at the 68,000 capacity Wanda Metropolitano stadium after bidding farewell to their beloved Vicente Calderon home last season.
Atletico open the new arena in week four of the campaign against Malaga after three testing away trips to promoted Girona, Las Palmas and Valencia which will gauge the true competitive level of a highly talented but incomplete squad.
The club have bought Spain international Vitolo from Sevilla but cannot register him until January because of a two-window FIFA transfer ban for signing minors.
They are hopeful of resigning unsettled Chelsea striker Diego Costa, although they have spent most of their efforts on ensuring their best players stay.
Homegrown midfielders Saul Niguez and Koke were handed bumper contract extensions as was France striker Antoine Griezmann, who said he rejected a move away after the transfer ban was confirmed as a gesture of solidarity to the club.
"With everything that happened the most important thing the club did was to prevent our important players leaving," said Simeone.
"From a coach's point of view, when we knew we couldn't sign players we started focusing only on improving the group of players we already have. When you have hope and belief, you always have reasons to stay motivated."
Atletico's belief in themselves is one of the main reasons they have managed to go toe-to-toe with Real and Barcelona for the last five seasons.
They will have to count on that spirit more than ever as they try to keep up with the big two after having their wings clipped.
(Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Toby Davis)