Atletico Madrid on the verge of Champions League glory but team could soon be dismantled
Sometimes the fulfilment of a dream can also be the beginning of its unravelling: especially when Chelsea and Roman Abramovich's millions come calling.
Atletico Madrid go into Saturday night's Champions League final knowing that three of their star performers are more likely to be at Stamford Bridge next season than the ramshackle, but hugely atmospheric, Vicente Calderon stadium.
That will hurt, especially as Atletico so comprehensively out-played Chelsea in the semi-final. Chelsea want the one they already own - Thibaut Courtois - to return and sign a new contract, after three years on loan at Atletico, and challenge Petr Cech as the club's first-choice goalkeeper, a point which may force Cech to move on.
But they also want the £16 million-rated Brazilian left-back Filipe Luis to succeed Ashley Cole, who has signalled he is expecting to leave, and, with the biggest headline of all, they are confident of securing Diego Costa for £31.5m - his buy-out clause - to become the club's main striker.
That would leave a huge hole in the heart of the team for the Spanish champions to fill.
In public, Ateltico have been doing their best to sound bullish. As recently as last month, their sporting director, Jose Luis Caminero, was insistent that there's no compulsion to sell.
"Last year we wanted to consolidate the group of players that we currently have and we renewed the contracts of pretty much all of them, including Diego Costa," he said. "Our minds are set on keeping this group of players together and steadily bring in one or two more, who can reinforce what we're doing with our project. We want all our big players to stay and we're planning for next season with them."
Yet in reality Atletico have little choice in the matter. They are saddled with debt, despite having a wage bill which is a fraction of that boasted by Real Madrid and Barcelona, but selling is part of the club's way of operating.
Atletico have previously absorbed the loss of Fernando Torres, Sergio Aguero and Radomel Falcao - three undisputed superstars - thanks to their remarkable record of signing up, developing and selling on strikers. They are already scouring the world for Costa's replacement, who is most likely to come from South America, and most probably Brazil.
There is also talk that they may take Torres back as part of the Costa deal - a deal which would involve Chelsea subsidising his wages - and make an attempt to acquire Romelu Lukaku on loan.
Atletico's approach is undoubtedly aided by the astute recruitment policy of Caminero. He has previously admitted that selling players is healthy for the club's philosophy of encouraging young players, and also controlling the debts.
But it does seem curious that a club which has won its league, arguably the highest standard in Europe, and reached the final of the Champions League, has to wheel and deal in this fashion.
There are other players who may leave Atletico. David Villa signed last summer, turning down a move to Tottenham Hotspur, despite agreeing terms and visiting the Spurs training ground. It is understood the 32-year-old striker is now keen on playing in the Premier League after all and is seeking a two-year deal.
The contract to acquire him from Barcelona was for €5m this season, €2m next season and another €1m should he stay the year after that - or, alternatively, the two clubs split 50/50 any transfer fee.
Atletico might be able to stomach the departures of Costa, Courtois, Filipe and Villa, but a step too far would be the loss of Koke, who is regarded as the team's key player and who was the subject of an enquiry from Manchester United last season. The 22-year-old midfielder is not just skilful, but strong, and has been a powerful figure in Atletico's extraordinary campaign. No-one has more assists than him in La Liga. Few have won more tackles.
What Atletico will hope, above everything, is that their coach, Diego Simeone, will stay. If the Argentinean was to feel this team had run its course, and that he needed a new challenge, that would cause the greatest damage of all.
When the former midfielder, who had two spells at the club as a player, took over in the winter break of 2011-12 they were 10th in the league and in perilous financial straits. In his first season in charge they won the Europa League and finished just two points below the Champions League places.
Simeone has given no indication that he wants to leave but he would be in huge demand should he do so. Interestingly, he is said to be represented partly by the sports arm of an investment fund, the Doyen Group, which has close links with Atletico and may hold influence over what happens there.
There is a tangled financial web, with the Spanish taxpayer owed money and numerous other creditors and investors. Atletico have sought the help of outside funding, with Doyen claiming to have been involved in half-a-dozen deals in recent years to prop up the club.
It has led to the spectre of third-party ownership which Uefa now want to ban across Europe, and which is already outlawed in England.
It means that as laudable as Atletico's achievements have been, and as well as Simeone has marshaled and organized his team, and squeezed every last bit of effort out of them, the club is not quite the David v Goliath it has been portrayed as.
There are other players who could be in demand, including the captain Gabi and also Oliver Torres, a 19-year-old midfielder who was blooded into the first-team by Simeone earlier this season but has been loaned out to Villarreal.
He has already been talked about as the next big thing. Chances are Atletico will keep him for now - and sell him for a huge fee later. That is their way.
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