Are Atletico Madrid Set To Party Like It’s 2014?

Atletico Madrid’s 0-2 victory against Rayo Vallecano in La Liga on Wednesday night bore many of the hallmarks that have come to characterize the club under the managerial tenure of Diego Simeone.

Los Colchoneros came into the fixture off the back of a deeply disappointing 1-0 defeat at Malaga 10 days earlier, which had cost them the opportunity to take an outright lead at the top of the league table after both Barcelona and Real Madrid had dropped points the same weekend.

Simeone’s players’ morale would have inevitably been dented as a consequence, and after failing to break down a packed and resolute Rayo defence for 70 minutes in front of a raucous home crowd, one would not have been surprised to see Atleti settle for a draw and take solace from the fact that they would begin 2016 within touching-distance of first-place in La Liga.

Instead, Simeone shuffled the pack. On went Teye Thomas, Angel Correa and Jackson Martinez in place of Fernando Torres, Oliver Torres and Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco; and, in the 88th minute, Thomas sent Correa through on goal to give the visitors a 0-1 lead, an advantage doubled by France forward Antoine Griezmann in added time.

This was the epitome of the Partido a Partido(literally: “game by game”) philosophy that Simone has succeeding in implementing at the Vicente Calderon since being appointed to the dugout in December 2011; the idea that nothing exists outside of the game at hand and that every match is winnable provided that you work hard enough.

Under Simeone, Atletico have arguably become the most committed, resolute, spirited and psychologically robust club in La Liga, and when Eibar manager José Luis Mendilíbar observed that “They’re a big team that runs like a small one,” he meant it as a compliment.

How else can a club with a turnover of just under €170 million in 2014 compete for major honors with Real Madrid and Barcelona who posted income of €549.5 million and €484.6 million over the same period?

The fact that Atletico have become synonymous with fight and hard work during Simeone’s four years as manager is perhaps the finest testament one can offer to the scale of his achievements. After all, the Rojiblancos have traditionally been regarded as something of a fair weather club in Spain, the kind of side that always possessed a handful of talented footballers but one that was incapable of performing on the big occasion.

Since assuming control of Atletico with the club sitting four-points above the La Liga drop-zone a day after the being dumped out of the Copa del Rey by third-tier Albacete, however; Simeone has won a major trophy in three of the last four seasons. The Argentine led the Rojiblancos to their second Europa League triumph in three seasons less than six months after arriving at the club in May, 2012 and Atleti thumped Chelsea 4-1 to win the UEFA Super Cup three months later.

In May 2013 Atletico ended a 14-year winless streak against Real Madrid in order to win the Copa del Rey final, they became the first team other than the Classico clubs to win La Liga in a decade in 2014, finishing as agonizingly narrow runners-up to Real in the Champion League final a week later.

The reason why this record of success bears recapping owes to the fact that Atleti kick-off 2016 joint-level on points with Barcelona at the top of La Liga, two clear of their city rivals Real. They have won eight of their last 10 league matches, boast the meanest defence in Spain by a distance (eight goals conceded in 17 league fixtures) and have already won away at Sevilla – a fixture that both Real and Barca lost.

The team has to be considered bona fide contenders for the league title and their case is made even stronger when one accounts for the fact that high-profile summer signings such as Jackson, Luciano Vietto and Carrasco are beginning to find their feet in attack. Today’s signing of Celta Vigo’s Argentinian international midfielder Augusto Fernández is hardly going to hurt their chances either.

The fact that Atletico have to compete against the financial behemoths that are Real and Barca in La Liga every season means that the club is always going to be fighting an uphill-battle in terms of competing for league titles. But, the fact that Simeone has succeeded in blending an underdog mentality with a winning culture at the Vicente Calderon while constantly strengthening his playing staff means that they can never be written-off.

[Photo by G’onzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images]