Aidan O'Hara: Enjoy Atletico while you can - they may be the last of their kind
Published 11/04/2016 | 02:30
As a neutral, there comes a point in every match where the viewer chooses a team to support. And so it came to pass last Tuesday that virtually every defender who had ever played against a team that were better than theirs or who had manned the barricades in defiance of an onslaught threw their weight behind Atletico Madrid as they attempted to stave off the might of Barcelona.
The opponents are, with some justifiable argument, among the greatest teams who have ever been on a pitch and yet with every defensive header and every controlled interception which started a counter-attack, there grew a support for a team for which the term 'underdog' doesn't quite do justice.
There was certainly an element of cynicism to their performance - they worked on the principle that Barcelona players will get you booked even if you don't kick them, so you might as well kick them - but playing with 10 men for an hour in a howling Nou Camp, there were very few options to level the playing field.
It's a scenario which Diego Simeone has become familiar with since taking the Atletico job in December 2011 and establishing them as a Spanish and European force.
The problem for the likes of Atletico is that there is only so many times they can uncover another gem who will then be plucked away by Europe's richest teams or repackage a player who is cast aside by the big boys.
The two goalscorers from last Tuesday's game were prime examples - Barcelona had Luis Suarez, signed from Liverpool for £65m at a point when his career was just about to go from good to great.
Atletico had Fernando Torres, also a former Liverpool phenomenon, but who hasn't reached double figures in the Premier League, Serie A or La Liga in five seasons.
And yet, when he latched on to the pass from Koke there was the flash of the player from his original Atletico days which made him one of the most devastating strikers in the world.
On Saturday, Torres scored again in Atletico's 3-1 victory over Espanyol which puts them just three points off the lead in La Liga and in with a chance of finishing ahead of both Barcelona and Real Madrid in an era when, on paper, they shouldn't be anywhere near them.
When Simeone took over, his goalkeeper was Thibaut Courtois - albeit on loan from Chelsea - and his primary striker was Radamel Falcao, both of whom helped Atletico to win the Europa League.
The following season, they were joined by Diego Costa, who was brought back to the club after five loan spells and helped them win the Spanish Cup before, in 2014, winning the league and narrowly failing to pull off a double triumph in the Champions League.
In Simeone's four full seasons in charge, Atletico have - according to the website Soccerbase - spent £65m while taking in £155m.
By comparison, in the same period, Barca have spent almost £250m and recouped £95m while Real Madrid's net spend tallies to the best part of £200m.
In this context it's hardly surprising that Atletico might kick the odd opponent in order to level the playing field a bit but, against a team whose pleading to the referee makes Shane Warne's lbw appeals seem polite, it's difficult to be too critical of such cynicism.
Even with the financial disparity, the miraculous job that Simeone is doing is probably best illustrated by the calibre of player who has left the club in his time.
As well as Falcao, Costa and Courtois, Simeone has also lost Felipe Luis - before re-signing and rehabilitating him after a poor stint at Chelsea - Mario Mandzukic, Toby Alderweireld and Arda Turan, who could have been a crucial part of Atletico's defiance at the Nou Camp if he'd decided to stay. Instead, he got 10 minutes as a substitute for the home team which, barring injuries, is likely to be his role for the rest of the season.
It's eight years since none of Barcelona, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich made the Champions League final and, as Europe's elite edge closer to the closed shop of a Superleague, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the likes of Atletico to challenge.
Paris Saint-Germain's wealth is allowing them to close the gap on the 'big three' while Pep Guardiola's arrival and inevitable spending splurge at Manchester City will certainly improve their chances of making an impact in the competition.
Three years ago, Borussia Dortmund were thrilling to watch on their way to a Champions League final before the best of their players were snatched away by Bayern, and several seasons of planning and progress were eliminated in an instant.
Benfica and Wolfsburg are the other interlopers into the last eight this season whose best players will be pillaged in the summer and the status quo will be further cemented.
When the list of football's richest clubs was revealed at the start of the year, Atletico were positioned in 16th, two behind Schalke and two ahead of Newcastle, who are likely to be in the Championship next season.
It's in this context that Atletico's continuing achievements should be appreciated. A 1-0 win on Wednesday would be enough to see them through and while their style might not be as attractive as Barcelona's, their battles against huge odds should be supported while it lasts, because it might not last for much longer.