On the dotted line, he goes by Diego Pablo Simeone. But at the Wanda Metropolitano, he is simply “Cholo”and he is a legend there. His 396 games in charge have seen Atlético Madrid emerge as one of Europe’s most feared teams and forced his side onto the main bill when before they were lucky to be named on the undercard. There are very few frontiers that Simeone’s Atlético haven’t conquered — but on Saturday night in the capital, they play a team they have never quite figured out.
There are very few managers and teams that Simeone hasn’t — at one time or another —owned. Even Real Madrid, despite their victories in the two Champions League finals, will concede that life has become that little bit more difficult since Cholo returned to Spain where he once hunted down opposition players from his position in midfield and fed on the weak. But Barcelona? That’s another story entirely. He has lost against no team more (13) and won against no team fewer times (2) than Barcelona. It’s a nut he has never figured out how to crack.
Atlético have never beaten Barcelona at home in the league under Simeone. In 22 games between the two with Simeone in charge, there have been just two scoreless draws, 53 goals scored, nine reds and 238 yellows. Three of those games have seen the card tally rise to double digits and there have been nine in another couple. The games between the two have seen nasty fouls, bad blood, great goals and one of Arda Turan’s size nine football boots launched at a linesman.
This game — billed as the “otroclasico” in the Spanish media — has often been regarded as an unstoppable force versus an immovable object, but it might be morphing into something different.
It could be this immovable object’s last hurrah. The Juanfran, Filipe Luis and Diego Godín triumvirate has shown their age this season and you sense if adequate replacements had been found for Filipe Luis and Juanfran, they would not be in Simeone’s starting XI. Godín’s erratic early season form has been compounded by a string of muscular injuries that are getting harder and harder to shake.
A unit that once defined Simeone teams is aging and trying to pull off one last miracle under the Argentine. Godín, the youngest, is 32 and will blow out the candles for the 33rd time in February. At that point, Juanfran will have already hit 34 and Filipe Luis’ family will be planning for his 34th birthday during the summer. This could be the last game they play against Barcelona at home with more than two of them - although Juanfran’s recent injury means only Filipe Luis is fit.
In fact, in Simeone’s first game as a coach against Barcelona, just four of the current team started — Koke, who is as part of the furniture as Simeone, and the aforementioned defensive trio.
Ironically enough, two players who have defined Barça in this decade — Sergio Busquets and Lionel Messi — remain from that game too. But Busquets is aging too, with his eventual replacement as the man holding Spain together — a certain Rodrigo Hernández — has emerged as one of Europe’s better defensive midfielders and one of the best summer signings.
As time drifts on and the Simeone versus Barcelona battles continue to evolve, the doors swing open for a new hero, a new narrative and a new structure. Atlético are more vulnerable at the back than ever, with October’s 4-0 against Borussia Dortmund still relatively fresh in the mind and the uncharacteristic errors that hardly ever occurred under Simeone in the past becoming something more characteristic.
But the more things change, the more they stay the same. With so much talk of Barcelona’s DNA, Atlético’s next generation of talent has the same genes as the one that went before them.
“They are games of emotion,” Simeone said before the most recent Madrid Derby. “Played by men and by people with personality.”
Simeone might not be ready to rewrite the script just yet and you can expect Saturday night at the Wanda Metropolitano to be another game with barely-concealed emotion at its center. It might be a changing team’s last chance at domestic silverware, and Cholo will continue as he started back in January 2012.