Asked who he would like to face in the last 16 of the Champions League in December last year, AC Milan’s Sulley Muntari said he preferred facing Atletico Madrid as they were the ‘weakest’ team remaining in the competition.
A lack of winning pedigree is no crime. In underrating Atletico, the Ghanaian has shown a kind of ignorance a professional footballer at the highest level ought not to — not towards a team that would have been on top of La Liga at this point if not for a marginally inferior goal difference.
Diego Simeone, Atletico’s Argentine coach, has moulded the team into a tough-tackling unit known for their drive to win and win consistently. Not any longer are Atletico content to rest on their laurels when they are leading, they hound, they persist, they pester and they win.
Internal politics, volatile fans and a constant stream of strikers shipped out to bigger clubs — Torres, Forlan, Aguero, Falcao — no longer threaten to throw them off their equilibrium. Falcao has been replaced by Diego Costa, nicknamed ‘The Beast’, who with 19 goals from as many matches is just one behind the irrepressible Ronaldo.
Simeone’s team have in the past few seasons found their own space and become comfortable in it. For all of the coach’s protestations that they cannot win the league, Atletico have beaten city rivals Madrid at the Bernabeu and just held Barcelona to a goalless draw. They also topped their Champions League group.
Learning from Dortmund’s experience, they have tied down most of their best players to long contracts, thus reducing the risk of losing their best players for nothing.
This is Atletico’s time. While they may not have the squad to last the distance across three competitions, they can definitely follow up on their Cup success of last year by prioritising on La Liga or the Champions League.With the red and whites may not have the silken attributes of Barcelona or Bayern, they have the drive, passion and a different skill-set with which to destabilise the established hierarchy in Spain.
So if you haven’t heard of Atletico, dear reader, now is your time to brush up your knowledge. You will definitely not be alone in this quest, you’ll find Muntari doing the same. You have the advantage of catching them on the telly every week unlike Muntari, who will soon have ‘The Beast’ breathing down his neck sometime in February.
(Hormazd is a senior sub-editor based in New Delhi)