Full disclosure: I’m going to be fairly jubilant here, as Atletico Madrid have just won was what the most important match of 2014-2015 campaign thus far – Round 16 of the Champions League – winning 3-2 on aggregate against Bayer Leverkusen in a painful, exhausting match that went to penalties.
And further pardon me for this, but I’m thrilled because they won it in classic Colchoneros style.
There was plenty of noise going on in the media about Atleti running out of steam prior to this match. You know how it goes—when the winning slows down, suddenly every player is out of form, out of favour and the manager himself is ready to move on and refusing to sign a contract.
In reality, there have been legitimate concerns. Discipline had been an issue with cards and suspensions piling high. Communication was not always in place on the pitch. The absence of players such as Koke and Guilherme Siqueira due to injury, or Arda Turan and Godín to suspension, had a noticeable effect on the way the team played.
The problems probably began with Atleti’s epic meltdown against Barcelona in the second of their two-leg Copa del Rey meetup in January. That match represented a total breakdown of discipline and mental control. Arda Turan threw a boot, captain Gabi was sent off in the tunnel and the entire squad lost it under the pressure of a cool, confident Barcelona, ending with just nine men on the field. It was a train wreck and it heralded the poor form that followed.
In recent weeks a series of draws and losses pushed Atleti further from the top, and worse, closer to fourth, where they now reside. Fans and journalists alike began to speculate that it might be time for Simeone to move on – that perhaps he’d done what he could with a squad that is largely over 30, and perhaps he’d better get going while the going was good, while he is still the hottest ticket in Europe.
There was also the oft-repeated assumption that Mario Mandzukic had fallen out with Simeone. This idea wreaked more havoc than simply the threat of a player leaving in the summer; Mandzukic, brought in last summer as Diego Costa’s replacement, fits the team and fits the ethos. The idea that he’d fallen out with Simeone could be a sign that the fight and heart of the team was falling out.
When the going is tough, people like to tear everything down, so they went ahead and freely began making silly statements like how Atleti will “likely lose” Arda Turan and Koke in the summer – both patently gross assumption based on no facts except that every team on earth would like to sign them.
Atleti needed a win—in a big way.
Do or die
The Champions League match was particularly important because it represented the collective held breath from fans around the world.
Would Atleti put on the display of the last three weeks? Or would they be able to regroup and bring the corazon y coraje style for which they are loved? Just two days to change the form we saw at the weekend against Espanyol—another soulless draw at 0-0, after which they slipped to dreaded fourth place behind a tenacious Valencia—could they do it?
And what would happen if they didn’t?
The Champions League has always been Atleti’s absolute goal this season, something Simeone has reiterated throughout. And the second-leg of Round 16 against Bundesliga side Bayer Leverkusen was do-or-die, and not just because to lose it would destroy any possibilities of glory this season. To lose this match after Bayer outplayed them at the BayArena would have been indicative of a nose-dive in hope.
But Atleti is not weak at its core and Simeone does not waver.
The win over Leverkusen was an epic return to the form we know and love. We saw the exceptional work ethic that has carried the squad this season. Goals don’t come easily this year, but there was a sense of nose-to-the-grindstone work to defend and push the ball.
Los Rojiblancos most definitely gave everything they had. At the end to the match, they were battered, exhausted, in tears, spent in every way.
But they’d done it—they’d nailed the trifecta of requirements: they’d advanced to the next round, regained their form, and they showed everyone that all the rumors over the past few weeks were rubbish.
Here was the title-winning, Real Madrid-destroying, mattress maker fury.
It wasn’t perfect. It rarely is. Cani wasn’t a good choice for the midfield, but that choice was quickly corrected. Apart from the starting XI’s excellent display of effort, the perfectly coordinated passes and the textbook well-made challenges, there were several moments during the long match that showed evidence of the heart of the club.
Like when Moya had to come off due to an unfortunate hamstring injury, and he hugged Oblak tightly, acknowledging the difficulty of having to come on cold from the bench.
There was Simeone’s outraged discussion with the referee over Raul Garcia’s bloodied cheek, a manager looking out for his player.
And the way Fernando El Nino Torres kept the celebrations to a minimum after his successful penalty shot, because he knew Oblak still had to save one.
Perhaps most touching of all was the image of Arda Turan on his knees, eyes closed tight in prayer during the penalty shots, facing away because he couldn’t look.
None of these moments are necessarily unique to Atleti as a squad, and yet they are. They embody what the team brought as a whole to the match—that they got over whatever has ailed them in the past weeks, went to work, and got it done.
Media speculation that the squad had run out of steam due to the demands of keeping up with Simeone’s high-intensity style was ridiculous. I hope that’s clear now. If an Atleti player isn’t willing to put in the work, it is no secret that he is not selected for a match day. If a player is ‘taxed’ by the intensity, then that player can look to play elsewhere, rather than one of the top teams in Europe.
It’s that simple.
The cherry on top of yesterday’s win came shortly after the victory when reports began emerging that Natalia Simeone, Diego Simeone’s sister and agent, reported that his deal to keep him at Atletico Madrid until 2020, was 90% done.
So, no – Atletico Madrid isn’t running out of steam. They’re gunning the engines.