While Leicester City completed their own fairy-tale story this week, Atletico Madrid’s only threatens to continue on and on, and it is all thanks to one man.
Claudio Ranieri has won numerous plaudits for how calm, relaxed, and often funny he has been throughout Leicester’s remarkable Premier League title-winning campaign. Diego Simeone is the complete antithesis, as his fevered and intense reactions during Atletico’s away goals victory over FC Bayern München proved. But it is these qualities which have helped him become the most impressive manager in European, if not, world football.
His pairing with Atletico is a match made in heaven, although opposition teams would argue it feels altogether rather hellish.
Just as they did against Barcelona in the quarter-finals, Simeone’s men remained resolutely disciplined defensively, under a constant barrage of Bayern advances. The German outfit may have scored twice, but Atletico knew – like Mohammad Ali retreating to the ropes to absorb the punches – it would only take one swift attack to land the knockout blow.
That moment came in the 53rd minute as Fernando Torres, himself a triumph of Simeone’s magic, released Antoine Griezmann. The Frenchman’s manager may have been animated on the sidelines, but the forward kept ruthlessly cool to slide the ball past Manuel Neuer, and ultimately seal his side’s place in the Champions League final.
— Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) May 3, 2016
The result will hardly raise many eyebrows. The Spanish outfit are level on points with Barcelona at the top of La Liga and were Champions League runners-up two seasons ago. But it is easy to forget just how far away such achievements were when ‘El Cholo’ was first appointed.
On 23 December 2011, the Argentinian took over the club in a much different state to the one he helped to a league and cup double 15 years earlier. Atletico were flirting perilously close to the relegation zone heading into the winter break. As captain Gabi admits, the players were “mentally sunk”.
Six months later, the team had finished fifth in La Liga, and had won the Europa League after a 3-0 victory over Atheltic Bilbao in the final. Falcao’s hat-trick would fire the side to a resounding 4-1 success over Chelsea in the European Super Cup. The following campaign brought with it the Copa del Rey, beating fierce rivals Real Madrid for the first time this century in the final at the Bernabeu.
Simeone’s most impressive season to date came in 2013/14, when Atletico unthinkably broke the duopoly of Barcelona and Real, on a budget almost three times smaller, to claim the Spanish title. In addition, they came within 60 seconds of winning the Champions League, only to be denied by Sergio Ramos’ 93rd-minute header, before subsequently burning out in extra time.
After Lionel Messi et al swept the board last season, Atletico are back in with a chance of claiming a historic La Liga and Champions League double. All the while Simeone has had to deal with losing his best players. Of the 18-man squad for the final encounter with Real Madrid, 12 are no longer at the club. Somehow a team has been maintained that perfectly encapsulates its manager.
A tough-tackling midfielder, Simeone had more than an element of the Machiavellian as a player, as highlighted by his infamous antics which led to the dismissal of England’s David Beckham while captaining Argentina at the 1998 World Cup. Looking back on the event, he admitted he had exaggerated the impact of Beckham’s petulant flick of the boot, before adding: “You take advantage of all the opportunities you find in life. If don’t take advantage of a chance that comes your way you are lost.”
And that motto sums up his Atletico team. There are many talented players in the squad, but it remains greater than the sum of its parts. Their dogged determination, collective drive, and will to succeed is their greatest asset.
Speaking ahead of the semi-final with Bayern, Simeone said: “In wars, it isn’t the side with the most soldiers that wins, rather the side that uses its soldiers better.” And he has shown, just as Ranieri has at Leicester, he can get the very best out of his soldiers.
Prior to the second leg, Torres, who has been revitalised since returning to his hometown club, highlighted just how much the players buy into their boss’ methods. “We are ready to die for each other,” he warned.
— Fernando Torres (@Torres) May 3, 2016
And just like their mentor, Atletico are masters of the dark arts, killing time, and rattling their opponents. Bayern, managed by Pep Guardiola, a man credited with reinventing football, were eventually reduced to hoofing the ball into the box; food and drink for the likes of Diego Godin and Jan Oblak.
Whether they face Real or Manchester City in the final, it is going to take a brave man to bet against this set of soldiers and their general.
Regardless of whether they win the final or not, other clubs will undoubtedly court Simeone’s services, but his work is not yet done at Atletico and so he should remain – the man in black, the Don of the Calderon.