The Spanish league is a two horse race, right? Barcelona and Real Madrid win it season after season because they’re much bigger and much more powerful than the rest.
They’ve finished first and second in eight of the last nine seasons. The gap between second and third-placed Valencia was 25 points in 2010, 21 in 2011 and 30 in 2012.
Real Madrid’s annual wage bill is 580 million euros (£484m), 30% more than five years ago, Barca’s is 500m euros, 20% more. Rayo Vallecano's is 7m euros – a statistic which shows the huge disparity among competing teams and does the Spanish league no favours.
Atletico Madrid have the third highest: 120m euros, the same as five years ago. After years of almost laughable financial instability, even Atletico have had to rein in their finances in attempt to manage their debt. Yet they’ve improved in each of those five years: ninth, seventh, fifth and then last year’s third place was their first in the top three since they won the title in 1996.
They were nine points behind Real Madrid in second - a big gap, but much reduced. They were second until March, when injuries and a smaller squad told. They’ve been better known as a cup team, though, winning the Europa League in 2010 and 2012, the European Super Cup in 2012 and the Copa del Rey in 2013. They won that final against Real Madrid. In the Bernabeu. It was their first victory against their esteemed neighbours this century and it lifted their confidence.
They went back to the Bernabeu on Saturday in the league and won 1-0. It should have been more. They were more of a team than Madrid, sharper tactically in thwarting their counter-attacks. And now they’re five points ahead of them after just seven matches.
Atleti have won all seven league games so far. In the Spanish Super Cup, they held Barcelona home and away, defeated only by away goals. In the Champions League, they’re top of Group G with two wins from two and beat Porto away last night.
While Falcao’s goals were generally counted as the major factor in last season’s third-place finish, coach Diego Simeone has been the driving force. Like legendary boss Luis Aragones, Simeone is a much loved former player. He replaced Gregorio Manzano when the team were 11th in December 2011, having lost Sergio Aguero, David De Gea, Jose Reyes, Elias and Diego Forlan that summer. They finished fifth and triumphed in Europe.
Simeone has bought well, yet the team is largely unchanged. Volatile striker Diego Costa has replaced Falcao as the main front man and he’s been the best player in Spain so far this season. The Brazilian-born striker could be called up by Spain boss Vicente Del Bosque. His foil, David Villa, a steal at just £2.1m (and rising), is doing a good job.
The defence of Juanfran, Diego Godin, Miranda and Felipe Luis is the most settled in the league. Luis gets forward and crosses with his sublime left foot. He won his first Brazilian cap earlier this year. Compatriot Miranda is another international, strong and reliable. The Uruguayan Godin has excellent anticipation and aggression. Full-back Juanfran was a winger whom Simeone has turned into a technically excellent defender who pushes forward.
Mario is supported in the middle by Gabi, the captain and Simeone’s man on the pitch. Tiago is tall and has presence, or Koke plays when a more attacking dimension is required. Turkey international Arda Turan, he of football’s finest beard, is used with success on the left, feeding Costa. The fleet-heeled striker was played out of position on the right but is now more central after Falcao’s departure.
Atleti’s efforts on the pitch have often been in danger of being overshadowed by chaos off it. Falcao followed Fernando Torres, Sergio Aguero, David De Gea and Falcao out of the club. But the club have been smart in the transfer market. Rather than buy De Gea’s replacement, Thiabut Courtois, 21, they loaned him from Chelsea. He’s in his third season in Madrid. He also one of the best two young goalkeepers in the world with De Gea.
Sales have gone well too: 60m euros for Falcao or the recent coup of 5m for Martin Demichelis from Manchester City, a player they’d signed on a free transfer from Malaga six weeks earlier.
“We have three (European) titles in two years, it helps you grow as a group,” says midfielder Mario Suarez, 26, who plays and looks like a young Pep Guardiola. Mario is much improved and can function as a holding or box-to-box midfielder. In fact all the Atleti players have improved under Simeone.
They had offers for almost every one of them in the close season, but many chose to stay. Why not? They’re at a huge, successful club in a great city. They have an indomitable team spirit which comes from the manager and they’re in the Champions League. They also have Oliver Torres, an 18-year-old attacking midfielder who is a bright prospect, though still a peripheral figure.
The mattress makers are the team of the moment. Their fraying Calderon home may be in need of investment – which is unlikely as they hoped to move to an as yet unbuilt new ground, the centrepiece of Madrid’s 2020 Olympic bid, due to open in 2016. But Tokyo won the bid instead, so doubts have arisen.
That’s normal for Atleti fans, they’re used to bad news. What more could you expect of a club whose stadium is on a street called melancholy?
To outsiders, their rise may be surprising; to Atletico, it’s how it should be. They have long boasted top class players, as befitting their status as Spain’s third biggest team. Valencia and Athletic Bilbao may be ahead of them in the respected all-time league table, but Atleti attract bigger crowds and have won more league titles than both.
When they reached the 2010 Copa del Rey final, they took over 60,000 fans to the final, twice that of opponents Sevilla. Their last double win was in 1996, the one before in 1977. The 70s was a golden era when the Rojiblancos (red and whites) won three league titles, two Copa del Reys, drew the 1974 European Cup final (before losing a replay to Bayern Munich) and won the Inter Continental Cup.
Radomir Antic, the man who won the double in 1996, rates the current team highly. “I see Atletico challenging for the title until the end, the team has staying power,” he said yesterday.
It’s still a huge ask, especially along with Champions League football, but this is the best Atletico side in decades.
Andy Mitten - Follow on Twitter: @AndyMitten