The most obvious factor in Atletico Madrid’s best season for many years is the goalscoring contribution made by Radamel Falcao, and it is one that is very hard to ignore. Leading the line with class and distinction, the Colombian has helped make Atleti the third-most prolific side in La Liga. That said, their tally of 43 goals almost pales into insignificance compared to Barcelona's haul of 72 and is comfortably inferior to Real Madrid’s 54.
Curiously, it is at the back where Los Colchoneros have been outperforming Spain’s big two, their record of a mere 21 goals conceded so far this campaign bettered only by Malaga, a statistic that has allowed them to pose a genuine threat to the domestic domination of Spain’s traditional powerhouses.
The solid performances of Falcao’s defensive team-mates has not gone unnoticed by 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™-winning Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, who has called on the services of Atletico defenders Miranda and Filipe Luis for Wednesday’s friendly against England – his first game back in charge of A Seleção.
The form of the centre-half and the fullback goes a long way to explaining the progress made by the Madrid club, and has also thrust them firmly into contention for places at June's FIFA Confederations Cup and Brazil 2014, which kicks off in less than 500 days.
“Defence is very important in Europe,” Filipe told FIFA.com. “It counts for a lot. We are growing all the time, winning trophies and achieving big things, and we have to keep it going.
"My weakness was defending. Here fullbacks have to defend first and then attack, and I think that’s where I’ve improved the most. I’ve come on a lot and I’m a more rounded player now.”
Earning plaudits for his defensive attributes is nothing new for Miranda. Just ask any fan of Sao Paulo, where he spent five distinguished years and won three Brasileirao titles in a row. Yet the ball-playing defender feels he has only improved since joining Atletico.
He told FIFA.com: “I know what I’ve got to offer. To be honest, it’s been some time now since I’ve been playing better here than I did at Sao Paulo, where I made the Brazil team a few times. A Seleção is all about taking your chance when it comes around though, and you have to be ready.”
Judging by their recent showings and their part in Atletico’s impressive stats, the Brazilian twosome are more than ready to make a go of their international careers. Atleti have won all 12 of their Liga matches at the Vicente Calderon this season and have not conceded a single league goal there since 11 November. Overall they have let in just 25 goals in 28 outings, including Copa del Rey and UEFA Europa League games.
“The idea is always to be strong at the back so that we can then take teams by surprise when we go on the attack,” explained Filipe.
Appointed last season, Argentinian coach Diego Simeone has been instrumental in giving Atletico their new-found astuteness, his tactical acumen being rewarded with almost instant success as his side collected the Europa League and added the UEFA Super Cup, triumphs they have built on impressively this season.
“The team was going through a rough patch when I arrived here, and things weren’t gelling on the pitch,” said Filipe. “Today the players are giving a lot more in terms of tactics, and the biggest thing that’s done for us is to make us a winning team. The old Atletico are back.”
Only the record-breaking Barcelona have suffered less league defeats this season than Atleti, who stand nine points behind the leaders in second and seven points clear of Real Madrid, the first time in years the men in red and white have led their city rivals.
Miranda pointed to the significant progress the team has made: “We’re competing with two superpowers in the league, we won the Europa League, and the next step is a place in the Champions League. Obviously we always go out to win, but when you’re taking on Barcelona and Real Madrid over the course of a long season, you need to keep your feet on the ground.”
As well as battling with the cream of Spanish football, Felipe Luis and Miranda now face another daunting challenge: to beat off some stiff opposition and nail down a place in Scolari’s Brazil side.
With two major tournaments coming up, Filipe is determined not to miss out: “I’ve made it this far and I want to stick around, not just play one game. I want to be part of a winning team.”
The competition for Seleção places will see the Atletico left-back go head-to-head once again with rivals from Barcelona and Real Madrid: “There’s a bit of battle going on for the left flank. Marcelo is a real attacking force for Real and Adriano is a fantastic all-round player who’s having a great season at Barça. That just shows you how strong our football is: the left-backs in the top three teams in Spain are all Brazilian.”
Club-mate Miranda does not have it any easier. Even when he was winning title after title with Sao Paulo, his route to the national side was largely blocked by the imposing figures of Juan and Lucio. And while the two veterans remain very much on the scene, young pretenders such Thiago Silva and David Luiz have also emerged in the meantime.
“Lucio and Juan held down their places for a long time, and even though it was tough to get into the side, I still managed to do it and I had my opportunities,” he said, accentuating the positive. “Here I am back in contention again, and the fact I’m playing for a strong and successful club side can only increase my chances.”
Having deservedly caught Scolari’s eye, the trick for the Atletico twosome now is to translate their club form to the international stage, starting at Wembley on Wednesday.