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An oral history of Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid versus Barcelona

Diego Simeone’s rivalry with Barcelona has been heated, lopsided, at times, and tense but it has always been entertaining

Barcelona v Club Atletico de Madrid - Copa del Rey Quarter-Final: First Leg Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images

(A side note to this is that Diego Simeone, the player, never beat Barcelona in five games - three with Sevilla and two with Atlético. He suffered two losses and three draws.)

Two days before Christmas 2011, Atlético Madrid got a new manager. The new coach - called upon after his predecessor, Gregorio Manzano, had been beaten by Albacete in the cup - had just helped Catania stave off relegation from Serie A the year before in his first European job. He had previously been appointed manager of Racing Club in his native Argentina - the same place he finished his career as a player after spending the previous 15 years in Europe.

His appointment as Atlético boss would cap off a whirlwind 2011 where he managed three clubs in three different countries, on two different continents with one familiar style - Cholismo.

Early years

It would be hyperbole to suggest that El Derbi is even the second biggest derby in Spain after El Clásico. There’s the Seville Derby and even the Galician Derby that give it a good run for its money. For most of these rivalries, however, there is a long-standing geographical, political or social reason for the hostility.

What Diego Simeone has turned Barcelona-Atlético into is a rivalry of footballing principles: the ebullient ballers up in Barcelona versus the hard-boiled, practical tactics of Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid.

Start as you mean to go on

Simeone’s first game against Barcelona got off to a losing start. There was that brooding aggression and controversy that has gone on to define the rivalry between the two clubs under Simeone. The problem with the first game was an unseen handball, antagonist Sergio Busquets and a ghost hand-ball, and the referee.

“We’re not going to argue if it’s a problem with the wall…if Busquets committed a penalty or if Alves should have been dismissed in the second half.”

“The referee was perfect,” Simeone said after the game, his statement drenched in sarcasm.

The match winner came from Lionel Messi and a direct free kick (more to come from Messi). The three points hardly mattered as it was the same year that Real Madrid earned 100 points and Pep Guardiola’s side finished second. Atlético in fifth were showing signs of improvement but were yet to reach the heights they would eventually under Cholo.

The problem Atletico had with the wall was that apparently the referee had told the players in the wall to back up. As they were retreating, Messi snuck in like a thief in the night and struck. First game. First loss. First controversy.

Simeone and Atleti would have to wait nearly 10 months for a crack at revenge. After Radamel Falcao gave Atletico the lead with a delicate chip over Victor Valdes, it turned into quite the mauling.

Pep was gone. Tito Vilanova had taken over. Diego Costa was back from his loan spell at Rayo Vallecano and operating as a wide forward - or whatever you want to call that position. The result was the same though. Simeone could not get the upper hand on his northern nemesis.

Adriano, Sergio Busquets and a Lionel Messi brace provoked Cholo to quip, “Messi is the best player in the world.”

“We brought out our best weapons, but Barcelona is playing at a different level. You can’t do anything against their determination. This league is boring.”

He was right. Barcelona won the league that year on 100 points, Real Madrid behind them on 85.

Atleti would lose the next meeting too to make it third time unlucky against Barça.

Atlético would draw the next two games against the Catalan rivals in 2013, but lose the Spanish SuperCopa on away goals, the 1-1 draw at the Vicente Calderón helping the blaugranas get the better of Atleti. And when the return leg was headed for a 0-0 stalemate, Filipe Luís and Arda Turan were sent off. Gabi, Diego Costa and Diego Godín all made their way into the referee’s book too. That brooding aggression was turning into full-on assault.

The next game in LaLiga was a draw, too. Goalless. The two sides also contested the UEFA Champions League quarter-final that year, the first leg ending 1-1 at Camp Nou but the second leg securing Atleti’s progression with a Koke goal and a 1-0 win.

After the tie, Simeone said: "There is a lot of joy at having got through a tie against a great opponent with a long history of success, above all in the last decade.”

The best was yet to come

After his manager declared him a candidate for the Ballon d’Or, star forward Diego Costa was forced off after 16 minutes with a persistent hamstring issue when Atlético traveled to Camp Nou on the final day of the 2013-14 season. Despite this small factor, Atleti would have their greatest victory over Barcelona - and they didn’t even win the game.

Alexis Sánchez gave Barcelona the lead in the first half and, having led the league from matchday 29 - a total of 10 weeks - over two months, Atlético faced slipping up and allowing Barcelona win the league with their 16-goal superior goal difference.

Long before Ramos Time, there was such a thing as Godín Time. It didn’t necessarily have to be late in the game; it needed to be an important time in the game when Atlético needed inspiration. Godín Time on May 17, 2014 was the 49th minute, when he popped up to score a header from a Gabi corner to equalise. It was backs to the wall from that point on and Atleti would claim a first league title since 1996. Simeone and his rojiblancos had usurped Barcelona as the kings of Spanish football - for one season anyway.

The lean years

Atletico were beaten 3-1 on January 11th 2015 after another controversy involving the referee, a possible hand ball and Barça not taking kindly to Atletico’s tactics.

"There were two games in one," Simeone said. "In the first Barca were better, very dynamic and intense. In the first half we were bad. In the second half we were very competitive, found a goal, and then had the game closer to where we wanted. We felt better in this game, closer to the equaliser. But then a goal after some ping-pong finished the game."

Atlético were knocked out of the Copa del Rey the next year by Barcelona at the quarter-final stage and would lose to them in the league 0-1.

In the second leg of the Copa del Rey tie, Atlético led 1-0 and 2-1 through Fernando Torres and Raúl García but an own-goal by Miranda and another strike by Neymar doomed Simeone to another defeat. Anyone who pays even the slightest attention to European football can tell you Atleti don’t often concede three.

“I tried to do what’s best for the team and the club. It was my decision that we played with little ambition to score another goal,” Simeone said during his post-match press conference. “We played in a way that was most convenient. I’m the coach and make what I feel are the best decisions.”

They would suffer the same fate the following season (2015-16) when they were beaten 2-1 home and away and Filipe was sent off again for a particularly poor tackle on Messi. Godín was sent off in that game, too. It does not rain for Atlético against Barcelona, but it pours.

Simeone was in typically defiant mood against the superpower.

“I am proud of my team. It kept its character throughout,” he said. “You can win, or you can lose, and I choose to lose this way any day.”

He said there was no need to reproach his two dismissed players and Atlético marched on. So did Barcelona; they won LaLiga, the Copa del Rey, the UEFA Super Cup and the FIFA Club World Cup that year. Atleti made it to another Champions League final against Real Madrid and lost.

That same year, Barcelona and Atlético were to do battle in one of the most abrasive two-legged ties they had ever competed against each other in. After the first leg of the 2016 Champions League quarter-final, referee Felix Brych had taken the names of nine players, six from Atleti and three from Barça. He would take Torres’ name twice and he got his marching orders before halftime - not before he scored the vital away goal, though.

Atlético travelled back home, regrouped, and just eight days later knocked Barcelona out of the competition thanks to a 2-0 win and an immaculate defensive display.

“There is a virtue in this team,” Simeone said after his side knocked out the reigning champions. “We are a group of honest workers who can win or lose. We make ourselves strong with the tools we have. Today, once again, we have won a tremendously difficult game.”

And again, Cholo appreciated his opponents’ history and how difficult it was to beat them.

“We were up against a very good opponent, with great history, and with players who could change the game in any moment,” he said.

If anyone knew how difficult it was to beat Barcelona, it was Diego ‘Cholo’ Simeone.

More recently, Atlético drew with Barcelona in the Camp Nou in September with an equaliser from Angel Correa after Ivan Rakitic gave Barcelona the lead.

And so...

Diego Simeone’s Atlético has played against Barcelona under four different managers over the years. His Atlético sides have won just twice, drawn six times and lost ten of those games. They have scored 16 goals and conceded 27.

They renew acquaintances in the Copa del Rey semi-final next week and Simeone must add another win or two to his record against Luis Enrique’s side and figure out a way to crack the Catalan nut. But regardless of the outcome, we are guaranteed to be entertained.