Since Diego Simeone took over Atlético Madrid half a decade ago, Madrid’s other club has morphed into a juggernaut of sorts. La Liga has always been a comically imbalanced league, but Atleti spoiled Barcelona and Real Madrid’s party in 2013-14 and became the first “other” team to win the league in a decade. Their league title remains their only trophy from these boom years, although they’ve made their names primarily in the Champions League.
Atleti came within a minute of winning the 2014 Champions League final against Real, and they took the 2016 final to penalties before losing to Real again. They don’t have the absurd depth of either of their two Spanish rivals, so contending for the league every year is a tough ask. However, they’ve had arguably the best group of defenders in the world for a few years and a stable of versatile midfielders in front of them, both of which make scoring against Atleti something of a nightmare. During the course of both runs to Champions League finals, their defense has coalesced and a superstar forward (first, Diego Costa; now, Antoine Griezmann) has been able to conjure enough going forward to beat whatever European titans stand in their way.
Atleti got their hearts ripped out in both finals, and overcoming that profound disappointment and making a third final without the ability to go burn hundreds of millions on replacements like their rivals can is a tough hill to climb. Atleti are not the sort of club that’s supposed to maintain sustained runs of excellence. The financial gradients of the soccer world are such that even when a team like Atleti outplays their economic stature and makes a run to a Champions League final, they tend to be stripped for parts by richer teams. And yet, here they are, going for it again.
This year feels more like 2016 than 2014. Atleti’s league and cup hopes are already dead, and the Champions League is the only tournament where they can still win anything. Tonight, they kicked off their spin in the knockout rounds with a wild 4-2 road win over German squad Bayer Leverkusen.
Atleti aren’t as prolific in front of goal as other European elites, but the far more shocking figure there is the two goals allowed. Only Barcelona and Bayern have scored multiple goals in a single game against Atleti over the past two years of Champions League play, and Atleti knocked out both last year. With center back José Giménez and Juanfran (Atleti’s lifer at right back) both struggling and injured, Atleti has been shuffling Stefan Savić and Šime Vrsaljko in to cover for them on the right flank of the defense. Both defenders are highly capable, but the defense as a unit has not been as impenetrable this year, and it showed today as Bayer scored twice from crosses and almost leveled it to 3-3 when Chicharito Hernández got loose in the box a few times.
However, any fears about the defense losing its edge should be secondary to the revelatory offensive show that Atleti put on today. This is not a team that sets off fireworks like Barça or Real do, but they have outlet men like Koke and Filipe Luís to set off deadly counterattacks and Bayer played right into their hands today.
Saúl was strong throughout and Filipe Luís’s goal line clearance and steady work on the left side (Luís somehow has the fourth-most touches in La Liga this year, a testament to his importance) kept Atleti dangerous throughout, but tonight belonged to Atleti’s duo at the tip of the spear. Antoine Griezmann has been universally regarded as a world-class forward for a few seasons now, but Atleti have cycled through a series of potential partners for him without settling on a permanent solution. Yannick Carrasco is a demon on the wing who should stay on the wing, Ángel Correa is maybe a year away, and Fernando Torres is 87 years old, although he can still ball. Enter Kevin Gameiro.
The Atleti debutante has looked like the best partner for Griezmann this year, and tonight the two Frenchmen ran all over Bayer. A few minutes after Atleti’s opener, Gameiro pounced on an errant clearance, then drew both center backs to him before finding Griezmann for an easy goal. Later, he drew and converted a penalty. The pair created several other good chances and could have had at least three more goals were it not for good saves.
Whether they can follow up on tonight’s performance and deliver against better opposition will determine how far they can go in the Champions League. Atleti can no longer hope to strangle opponents to sleep and sneak away with 1-0 wins, but if they can score more consistently, they won’t necessarily need to. Barça are probably out, so the path to the final is already more open than usual.
Eventually, Atleti’s core will start to age and the club will be forced to sell Griezmann. They have retooled the lineup and found new gems before, but it’s hard to do that again. This year might be their best chance to win a Champions League title for a while, and if they get back to the final, it’ll be as a more balanced team.