Atletico's unsung heroes are underdogs no more
Winter champions lack star power but have an unmatched team spirit
At three o'clock this afternoon Real Madrid begin the second half of the La Liga season against Sporting Gijon, and at 7.30pm Barcelona face Athletic Bilbao. Amongst them, they have eight of the players on the FIFA Team of the Year, announced in Zurich last Monday. Between them, kicking off at 5.15pm in the Canary Islands, they also have Atletico Madrid, who did not have a single player in that 11. Between them? Ahead of them, in fact.
Atletico travel to Las Palmas knowing that they will be top of the table, whatever has just happened at the Bernabeu. If they win, they know they will stay top too, regardless of events at the Camp Nou. The first 'title' of 2016 is theirs. They go into the second half of the season four points clear of Real and two ahead of Barca, proclaimed Spain's winter champions as league leaders at the halfway stage, a kind of European apertura. The question now is, can they be actual champions?
There's no trophy for being winter champions, and there is a caveat here too: because of the World Club Cup, Barcelona have a game in hand, which they will play against Sporting Gijon in February. Win that and Barcelona will be a point ahead of Atletico. But there is still something significant in this. Spain's seasons are split in half, with fixtures repeated in the same order, meaning Atletico are top (or at worse a point off), having played everyone once. They haven't been winter champions since 1996, and that year they won the double with Diego Simeone the club's captain.
These days he is their manager, of course. Or he would be if manager was not such an inadequate word to define his significance for the club. The question being asked is, can Atletico win the league? The answer would be, no, of course not, except that was the answer two years ago when they did win the La Liga title. The year before, they won the Copa del Rey, beating Real in the final. There may never have been a more meritorious league success, but if they were to do it again, then this season would run it close. Simeone's underdog discourse has worn a little thinner - Atletico spent more than €100m last summer, albeit the net spend was closer to €5m - but it contains an essential truth. This is a big club, and to use Simeone's current leitmotiv, it is "growing". But they are still competing against the very biggest.
Vicente Del Bosque, the Spain coach, said he was "surprised" that Atletico did not have any players in FIFA's World XI, but it did not surprise anyone else: they didn't last year either, or the year before. There should have been, perhaps, and the lack of recognition for Diego Godin, particularly in La Liga's own awards, is baffling, but player-by-player there is not that much to complain about. There are few stars at the Calderon, which is the way they like it. And besides, absence probably makes the heart grow stronger: the perceived slight might even help.
One player who really does stand out is the France striker Antoine Griezmann, whose buy-out clause Atletico want to raise to €100m - a precaution against interest from the Premier League and across the city that is all the more important now following the transfer ban which FIFA hit them with last week. He has been decisive this season. Atletico took the winter title with a 2-0 win at Celta Vigo, where Barcelona were beaten 4-1, and it was Griezmann who got the first, as he tends to. He has now opened the scoring more times than anyone else in Spain.
The Frenchman has also scored more than a third of the club's league goals. Go back over their last 12 and he got every other one, in order: Griezmann, Koke, Griezmann, Godin, Griezmann, Saul, Griezmann, Correa, Griezmann, Thomas, Griezmann, Carrasco.
In part that is because he has had to. But there is something else telling about that list: no other player is repeated. Twelve players have scored league goals, more than at any other club. All of them are contributing, from all over the pitch - and beyond. Eight goals and nine assists have been provided by players coming off the bench. In total, that is 17 goals from substitutes. Getafe's subs, the next best, have made just 11. In Barcelona's case, the total is two.
"Every player has to understand that we don't share that idea that being a starter is what matters," Simeone said. "The quality of the minutes is more important than the quantity."
Atletico signed Fernando Torres last year and in the summer Luciano Vietto, Yannick Carrasco, Angel Correa and Jackson Martinez. All have contributed in key moments, but none has fully convinced yet. Nor, indeed, did the shift towards what seemed set to be a more creative, more technical approach. So they got back to what they know: that new 4-3-3 was not abandoned, but it was modified. Now, slowly, it is being expanded again, but this is the Atletico that as Celta striker Iago Aspas admiringly put "doesn't let you play".
They may not have scored many goals - 27, compared with 44 for Barcelona and 52 for Real - but each has had a huge impact. Scoring a single goal has meant defeat just once in 10 games, against Barcelona. They have kept 12 clean sheets in 19 games and conceded eight all season. At 0.42 a game, that is better than anyone in Europe, ahead of Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich. No La Liga goalkeeper has faced fewer shots than Jan Oblak, fewer than one on target per game.
That has taken them to the winter title. Now, they must perform as well in the second half of the season if they want to win the actual title. But can they? Simeone, as ever, wouldn't say. Carrasco on the other hand would. "Well," he replied, "if we're top."
Sunday Indo Sport