Two seasons after becoming the first club not called Barcelona or Real Madrid to win the La Liga title in more than a decade, Atletico Madrid again find themselves leading the Spanish title race. A handy 3-0 win over a gritty Los Palmas was enough to see Diego Simeone’s men preserve their two-point lead over Barça in second.
With the season at the halfway point and Atleti on top, the murmurs that another title challenge could be on are growing louder. Yes, Barcelona have a game in hand and are the best team in the world again. Yes, Real Madrid have more money and are flying high under new manager Zinedine Zidane. But there’s just something about this Atleti side.
Simeone, who is quick to play down Atleti’s title hopes, just seems to know how to get his team to do what’s necessary to win. There are no 5-1 or 6-0 drubbings, such as Real and Barça inflicted on Gijon and Bilbao this weekend; in fact, Sunday’s win at Las Palmas was only the second time this season Atleti have scored more than two goals in a La Liga match.
While Barça and Real play fantasy football, Simeone’s team is all about economy, fielding a team for about an eighth of the budget of their rivals, and doing what’s necessary to get a result on the pitch without indulging in anything too spectacular. Atleti’s football may not make headlines, but it just might see them lift the La Liga title for the second time in two years, after ending an 18-year title drought in 2014.
Many of the heroes of that squad have moved on: Diego Costa and Thibaut Courtois to Chelsea, and Arda Turan to Barcelona. But Simeone has kept the spine of the team intact with Diego Godin, Filipe Luis and Juanfran still manning the battlements in the backline while Koke and Gabi pull the strings from midfield. After experimenting with a number of forwards, including Mario Mandzukic and Fernando Torres, Simeone seems to have settled on an adequate replacement for Costa in Antoine Griezmann.
Griezmann leads the scoring for Los Colchoneros this season, and is the one flair player on the side, lending a touch of artistry in front of goal to a team that is otherwise all business. With Bayern Munich, Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain all interested in snatching the 24-year-old Frenchman, Atletico are planning to raise the player’s release clause in an effort to keep him around.
Luckily for Atleti fans, there is almost no chance of Griezmann being allowed to leave in the January window, a critical month if Atletico are to keep their title challenge on track: Simeone’s team faces Celta Vigo, Sevilla, Barcelona, Eibar and Villarreal in the coming weeks, before resuming their Champions League campaign with a trip to PSV Eindhoven; four days later, they’ll travel to the Bernabeu to face Zidane’s Real Madrid.
It’s crunch time for Simeone and his team. But if Atleti can run the gauntlet and remain at (or close to) the level they are now, in a month’s time we could hear those murmurs about a title challenge grow louder still.
In the meantime, Atletico Madrid will be back in action in the Copa del Rey this week when they welcome Celta Vigo to Vicente Calderon.