It still cannot be stressed enough how incredible it was for Atletico Madrid to win Spain’s La Liga last season. Despite the annual breakdown of television money dictating that La Liga should only ever be a two-horse race, the league was won by Diego Simeone’s supposed second tier, yet bloodthirsty pony. After the sale of star man Radamel Falcao, and a summer spend totalling a €35million profit in Summer 2013, third place in the league and a decent Champions League campaign looked like being the primary aim for Los Rojiblancos. What followed has changed the way we as fans look at foreign football.
Last season, Atletico, and front man Diego Costa, started on fire in the league. Eight consecutive league victories to begin the season saw Costa add ten goals in the same time span. While nobody could question the electric start Atletico made, the sustainability of the system which Diego Simeone employed came under the microscope. The high pressure, high work rate and minimal squad rotation concoction meant fatigue was setting in as the Christmas/New Year break approached.
Having held second place throughout, Atletico got their first taste of the top of table on 2nd February after an impressive 4-0 win over Real Sociedad. Instead of this being an added incentive however, it appeared to have the opposite effect. Worrying defeats to Almeria and Osasuna, and a 2-2 draw with Real Madrid all in quick succession saw them slip to third place in the league, with experts and fans alike citing this as the end of their league challenge. Following that, five victories by a single goal in eight league games, as well as slips from Real Madrid and Barcelona, meant Atletico again consolidated first place in late March.
With three league games remaining, and Atletico on the cusp of their first league title in 18 years, the side again seemed to crumble under the pressure. Even after defeat by Levante in gameweek 36, and then a 1-1 draw with Malaga in the penultimate game of the season, Atletico still miraculously had the outcome in their own hands due to a catastrophic meltdown by both Barcelona and Real Madrid.
In a story you couldn’t have scripted, Atletico faced Barcelona at the Camp Nou on the final game of the season, needing a point or better to do what looked like a pipe dream 13 days previous. An Alexis Sanchez thunderbolt looked like breaking Atletico hearts early on, but with fate seemingly on their side all season, Diego Godin rose above everyone to head in from a Gabi corner, and secure the most thrilling La Liga title race in living memory.
It has been a busy summer for Atletico in the transfer market, having suffered the loss of numerous key players. Despite never being an Atletico owned player, coming to terms with the loss of Spain’s outstanding keeper from last season, Thibaut Courtois, could prove hard to recover from. Courtois kept 20 league clean sheets last season, winning the La Liga Best Goalkeeper award at a canter ahead of the likes of Victor Valdes and Diego Lopez. Left back Filipe Luis, who was also key to the 20 league clean sheets record (also adding five assists), joined Chelsea for around £17million.
The undoubted star of last season was Diego Costa. The Brazil born Spain Striker scored 27 goals and provided five assists in La Liga last season, and has also joined the previously mentioned pair at Stamford Bridge for a fee of £32million. Other notable exits include Adrian Lopez who joined Porto for around £9million, and league legend David Villa joining MLS new boys New York City FC for free upon the expiration of his contract.
While the early exit of key players is never an ideal situation, at least it has given Atletico time to react. And react they have done, bringing in a total of 14 players thus far with less than a week to go now until the deadline. Between the sticks, highly rated Slovenia international Jan Oblak joined Atletico from Benfica for £13million. While Oblak isn’t the most well-known keeper in the wider European football circuit, his potential is clear to see.
Despite only playing the second half of the season, the 21-year-old won the Goalkeeper of the Season award in the Liga Portuguesa, keeping 14 clean sheets in only 16 league games. Two Left Backs have been brought in following the departure of Filipe Luis – Guilherme Siqueira for £8million, and Cristian Ansaldi on a loan deal from Russian side Zenit. Experienced former Malaga Centre Back Jesus Gamez joins for free to strengthen the Centre Back position too.
In a fantastic piece of business, Simeone has also brought in one of the brightest young talents in Europe of last season, Antoine Griezmann. The former Real Socieded winger joins for £26million, coming off the back of a fantastic season, scoring 16 goals and adding four assists in 35 league games last season. Atletico did well to secure the signing of Griezmann, with reported interest rife from the likes of Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea.
It was always going to be a tough task to replace Diego Costa, but Atletico look to have pulled a masterstroke with the signature of former Bayern front man Mario Mandzukic. The Croatian was Bayern’s go to man up top until the arrival of Robert Lewandowski this summer, and his swashbuckling style could help him fill the void left by Costa in the Atletico’s ferocious playing style.
With the season just underway, we have already had the chance to see how Simeone’s Atletico line up, and it could be argued that they are a better outfit now than they were last season. Atletico triumphed over local rivals Real Madrid in the two-legged Spanish Supercopa last week, with a Mario Mandzukic goal at the Vicente Calderon enough to separate the sides. With a few players still to come into the side after injury, evidently improving the squad further, who’s to say lightening can’t strike twice?
Admittedly, it will be much harder for Atletico this season after Real Madrid and Barcelona’s respective improvements, but we have learnt from the past not to bet against Diego Simeone – so you would be a fool to make the same mistake again.