At the start of the season Cristiano Ronaldo’s Real Madrid and Lionel Messi’s Barcelona both had designs on running out at the Santiago Bernabeu for the final of the UEFA Champions League. Having had their ambitions thwarted, however, it has been left to another Spanish side to carry the flag in Europe.
Not even the most optimistic of Atletico Madrid fans could have imagined that their notoriously inconsistent side would end the campaign as Spain’s sole representative in European competition. Yet Los Rojiblancos have achieved just that, clinching a place in Wednesday’s UEFA Europa League final against Fulham in Hamburg. And just to show that was no fluke, Atleti also have a Copa del Rey final to look forward to against Sevilla in a week’s time.
Although Atletico lack the spending power of Spain’s duopoly and have made no big-name signings over the course of the season, they at least managed to hold on to a nucleus of ambitious players anxious to give their success-starved fans something to shout about.
Quique the alchemist
As every Spanish football fan knows, Los Colchoneros have an unrivalled reputation for alternating excellent performances with dreadful ones. They illustrated the point at the end of last season and the start of this.
Ending the 2008/09 campaign in a creditable fourth place, they made a limp start to the new term, languishing in or around the relegation zone for several weeks. And though he had only been in the post for a few months, coach Abel Resino, a former Atleti goalkeeper, paid for the slump with his job, with ex-Valencia boss Quique Sanchez Flores coming in to replace him.
“We made a terrible start to the season and that was the fault of the players because nothing was going right for us on the pitch,” commented the club’s Portuguese winger Simao Sabrosa a few days ago. “Then the new coach came in. He started working on tactics and psychology with the team and he told us never to question the ability that we had. And we never have doubted it, although we just couldn’t get a win to start with.”
The low point of Atletico’s season came in early January. Already knocked out of the Champions League and still foundering in the bottom half of the table, they met second division Recreativo Huelva in the first leg of their Copa del Rey last 16 tie and went down to a humiliating 3-0 defeat. It proved to be the turning point, however. Spurred on by their vociferous fans in the return leg, Flores’ side surged to a 5-1 win to advance to the last eight. Within a month they had secured a place in the final.
Going it alone in Europe
The euphoria generated by that unlikely comeback had a positive effect on their challenge in the Europa League. Seeing off Galatasaray, Sporting Lisbon, Valencia and Liverpool, and with the rest of the country absorbed in the title battle between Barcelona and Real Madrid, they slipped almost unnoticed into the final.
All of a sudden, after a period of 14 years in which they had suffered the indignity of relegation and had won nothing but a share of the 2007 Intertoto Cup, Atletico find themselves on the brink of a notable cup double, quite a way to end a season that had promised little. “I’ve passed by Neptuno many times (the fountain in Madrid where Atletico players and fans celebrate their trophy wins) but I’ve never been able to celebrate anything there,” said the side’s young goalkeeper David de Gea, one of the revelations of the season.
One man who is convinced the players will very shortly be presenting some silverware to the sea god is club president Enrique Cerezo. “All that’s in my mind is winning and being there,” he commented. “We’re going to do whatever we can to make it happen and I’m sure this won’t be the first or the last time we’ll see Atletico in two finals.”
“You always have a 50-50 chance in a final,” said Simao in reference to Wednesday’s showdown against Fulham, the first leg of their possible double. “Neither side are favourites and I think both teams deserve to be in the final. We knocked out some big names along the way and so did they.”
Fulham coach Roy Hodgson believes the Spanish side are stronger candidates for the trophy, however. “There’s less of a gap between Atletico and the top sides in Spain than there is between us and the top teams in England,” said the experienced tactician. "You can keep Simao and El Kun [Sergio Aguero] quiet for 80 minutes and then they'll come up with a piece of magic that changes the game."
Hodgson could easily have bracketed Diego Forlan in that category. The Uruguayan striker has had a big hand in Los Colchoneros’ cup runs, while Argentinian Eduardo Salvio has shown enough in his relatively brief appearances to suggest he can have a major impact at the club. Also spurring Atletico on to success is their desire to pay tribute to keeper Sergio Asenjo, who suffered a serious injury at the weekend and will be out of action for several months.
“I hope I can fulfil my dream of winning something with Atletico Madrid,” declared Aguero earlier in the season. The Argentinian ace could be about to have that dream fulfilled at last, though with Atletico being Atletico, you can never be sure how the story will end.