Take your mind back to the 2014 Champions League final in Lisbon. A Diego Godin header in the 31st minute looked to have put Atletico’s name on the trophy but Sergio Ramos’ perfectly placed effort deep into injury time cruelly snatched victory from the claws of the Rojiblancos. The late equalizer brought back unwanted memories of the 1974 European Cup final, where Atleti were also denied their status as Champions of Europe by a last minute Bayern Munich goal. Both situations had similar endings as the finals were continued in different circumstances.
In extra time Real ran rampant on a mentally and physically fatigued Atletico team to earn a 4-1 victory, whereas 40 years’ prior the fixture was played 2 days after the original matchup, with Bayern strolling to a 4-0 win. Even the staunchest critic of Diego Simeone’s side would have felt pity for the underdog side that went as close as possible to giving their inspirational season an appropriate ending.
Flash forward two years later and Simeone finds himself in another envious position. If Atletico can avoid defeat to Bayern by a cushion of more than one goal, then los Colchoneros will head off to their second Champions League final in three years. Many teams across the continent would view a single appearance in the biggest match in European football as an achievement, whether they were victorious or not, but Cholo has no interest in just taking part. The Argentinian is a winner at heart, as proved in the constant success he’s achieved in his time as a player and manager.
In his time as a competitor, Simeone has won titles in Spain and Italy while also tasting success in cup competitions such as the Copa del Rey, Coppa Italia, UEFA Cup and even emerged victorious with his country, picking up a winners medal in the FIFA Confederations Cup and twice in the Copa America. His never-ending victories on the pitch laid the foundation for his continuous success off it. Since taking over Atleti in late 2011, he’s delivered the Europa League, Copa del Rey, UEFA Super Cup, Spanish Super Cup and La Liga to a club that hadn’t experienced this number of accolades since the early 70’s.
Simeone’s return to the club has helped change the culture of a team that had just been knocked out of cup competition by third tier Albacete before his arrival. However, there’s one trophy that is missing from the list of honours mentioned above, and it’s a prize that Atleti can grant themselves another chance of winning with a positive result on Tuesday.
When Atleti had booked their place in the final two years ago, it was a moment of celebration for the club and its fans. Not even the most loyal fan could have predicted that Simeone would have been able to guide Atletico to its first European Cup final since the heartbreaking 1974 fixture. Though they led, and eventually won, the La Liga at the time, success in Europe’s premier competition seemed like a step too far for the talented squad at the Vicente Calderon.
This time around the expectations are completely different. Should Atleti qualify for the final on Tuesday, there will of course be much elation and joy. Having the chance to play in such a monumental match shouldn’t be taken for granted but, unlike two years ago, the excitement will shortly morph into focus and concentration. At the behest of Simeone, this young Atleti team have evolved into a group of winners just like their manager. The incredible feat of reaching the final won’t be enough to satisfy this success-driven squad; they’ll already have their eyes on the Holy Grail of club competition.
Despite the overwhelming financial advantage that three of the other semi-finalists have over Atletico, no-one inside the doors at the Ciudad Deportiva will be satisfied with another runners-up medal. If there’s one thing that’s become obvious with this talented and determined side, it’s that they don’t see themselves as inferior to any of their opponents. Whether it’s the ridiculous riches of Real or the outrageous talent of Manchester City that line-up opposite them at the San Siro on May 28th, Simeone’s troops won’t be fazed.
It’s almost become their identity to disrupt the plans of the clubs with the bigger brands and wallets in their search for success. Barcelona were clear favourites to become the first team to defend their crown, until they met Atleti in the quarter-finals. Guardiola is supposed to leave Bayern with another Champions League in their trophy cabinet but the Spaniard’s idea of a Hollywood-style ending to his tenure at Munich looks to be neglected, as Simeone is still adding to his fairy tale adventure with Atleti.