Late on Saturday night, not long after his players had beaten Barcelona 1-0, immortalised a moment even they hadn’t experienced before with a celebratory photo taken in an improvised recovery room beneath the stands and headed home still in their kit, Diego Simeone sat in an empty auditorium and started another Zoom call. A series of journalists appeared on screen, taking it in turns attempting to get him to say Atlético Madrid are going to win the league. Or at least try to. One by one they failed, until somebody asked if he saw any similarities between this team and the one that took the title six years ago. “No,” he said, “I don’t.”
Simeone was at least half right. This is not like 2013-14, possibly the most extraordinary season in the club’s history. It is better. Well, maybe not better, exactly, and it might still be too early to say it is anything at all. But something is building, a feeling that Atlético are not just candidates; they could even be favourites. That there may never be a better chance to win La Liga; that there may never have been, in fact. Not even back then, when they actually did. Which is why if Simeone wasn’t saying so, they would do it for him, the front page of AS the next morning shouting: “Atlético are going for the league.”
Few said that when eight games into the 2013-14 season, Atlético had won every match, including the derby against Real Madrid (they lost to Espanyol in week nine). Eight games into this season, they have won only six, but even back then things didn’t look as good as they do now. Eight out of eight was not enough to be top, for a start. And while Atlético are not top at the moment either, and not playing the best football in Spain – both those things belong to Real Sociedad – their position is probably stronger than ever. Besides, on Saturday night this team did something even that revolutionary side couldn’t.
Atlético had gone 14 years without beating Madrid when they did so in the Copa del Rey final at the Bernabéu. They hadn’t won the league in 18 years and no one expected them to again but they did that too, at the Camp Nou. They reached the Champions League final for the first time in 40 years, then got there again two years later, although fate twice twisted the knife. They did all that, but never defeated Barcelona in the league until this weekend when, at the 18th attempt under Simeone, Yannick Carrasco slipped away from Marc André ter Stegen just before half time and put the ball into an empty net from 50 yards out.
A lot has changed since 2014 – only José María Giménez and Koke remain, while Diego Costa left and came back – but Simeone is still around. He has competed against Guardiola, Tito, Tata, Luis Enrique, Valverde, Setién and Koeman; Mourinho, Ancelotti, Benítez, Zidane, Lopetegui, Solari and Zidane again. A decade after taking over, he has built a new side to compete again at a time when their greatest opponents appear less equipped to do so than before. At this stage in 2013-14, Atlético were behind Barcelona and four points ahead of Madrid. Victory on Saturday night leaves them in a position where if they win either of their games in hand over Real Sociedad, they’ll go top. It also leaves them three points clear of Madrid with a game in hand, seven above Sevilla and nine ahead of Barcelona.
There is more. Atlético have won five in a row. They’re the only unbeaten team this season, a run that goes back 24 games – their best ever. They haven’t lost since the first day of February and haven’t been beaten at home since Messi flew into the trenches in December 2019. Their goal difference is +16, their best at this stage since the 1996 double-winning season. They haven’t trailed yet. They’ve only conceded two goals, and those came at 5-0 up against Granada and 2-0 up at Osasuna. Both times they scored again.
When Madrid beat Atlético in February, there was a sense of something slipping away, maybe even the end of an era. Some Madrid fans (who really should have known better after that banner) mockingly chanted for Simeone to stay. When Messi scored the goal that defeated them once more, all the Atlético manager could do was applaud. That and get back to work. A year on in the same arena, empty now, Simeone’s side beat them back.
On one level, it might not seem like much. Barcelona have lost as many games as they’ve won and are really not very good. They gifted Atlético the only goal, the ball given away first, Gerard Piqué missing Ãngel Correa’s pass next, and Ter Stegen getting nutmegged somewhere near the halfway line after that. There was something in the unattended goal that defines them: defenceless, an open invitation to opponents. Piqué went off injured and is likely to miss the rest of the season. Lionel Messi doesn’t want to be there. Griezmann might as well not be. And still Barcelona had chances to equalise: Clément Lenglet in particular should have scored.
But there was symbolism in the result, El Mundo suggesting that Carrasco had “broken the curse”, and there is substance too. The very fact that Barcelona aren’t very good is part of the point, as is the fact that Madrid do not convince – although Villarreal and particularly Real Sociedad deserve to be taken seriously. Those stats are not chance.
This is a new team, a different one. Atlético had two early chances, Ter Stegen making a superb save from Saúl and watching Marcos Llorente smash a shot against the bar. Playing five at the back with Carrasco and Kieran Trippier as wing-backs, they defended deep and hit Barcelona with a breakaway. If that seemed like classic Cholismo, the second half was different. Atlético defended with possession, keeping the ball and rarely seeming to be under pressure. More importantly, other games have been different too.
Atlético’s evolution, or otherwise, is a recurring theme: almost every season, it seems, they edge towards something more expansive only to edge back again. Simeone even suggested last year that supporters shouldn’t be swayed by voices demanding “better football”, that Atlético become something they’re not. “We like pizza,” he said, even when some players didn’t.
That experience urges caution but this season it looks like they might actually have embraced a more balanced diet, and not because there’s a slice in each hand. The arrival of João Félix might have brought the shift a year ago; the arrival of Luis Suárez this summer really has, Simeone himself rightly says. Not only has the Uruguayan started well himself, his presence conditions the rest, bringing different things out of his new teammates. Atlético have played higher, shorter, combining closer to goal.
It has been good for them, Koke says. It has been good for Félix too, arguably the outstanding player in Spain so far; Koke himself has emerged stronger, doubts left behind; and Marcos Llorente is thriving in a new role discovered at Anfield. But it’s everyone, a sense of collective revival which Simeone was keen to stress, “complicity” his new favourite word. Asked about Koke on Saturday, his answer managed to namecheck 12 other players. A handful of questions later, he crowbarred in the few that he hadn’t mentioned before.
Against Barça, Suárez and Lucas Torreira were unavailable having tested positive for coronavirus on international duty, the latter denied the chance to face his former club. Geoffrey Kongdobia didn’t start. None of this season’s signings, in other words. And yet the shift was still there, a mix of old and new. “We ‘play’ a bit more this season but we still have the defensive aspect and the counter-attack,” Carrasco said. There’s a variety, reliability and solidity about them that contrasts with Barcelona and Madrid, a sense of mission and clarity projecting them as candidates. “Atlético wear the face of champions,” wrote former player Kiko Narváez. “Unstoppable,” AS called them.
“The group is in good shape, and that gives us the enthusiasm, the hope and the passion to keep going. When there’s a communion between the idea and the execution, the most beautiful thing in this game appears, which is to give everything for the team,” Simeone said. What he wouldn’t say is that they are candidates, however hard everyone tried. There was something slightly perverse, even accusatory about the interrogation, the way the focus was as much on Atlético’s refusal to grasp the status thrust upon them from outside than on how good they are. Instead, Simeone and his players talked “game by game”. Just as they had in 2013-14.
Well, most of them did. But then for one, brief moment on Saturday night, Koke let something slip. “Why not dream?” he said.