Atlético Madrid’s upper crust have been so desperate to sell their new stadium, the Wanda Metropolitano, as their new forever home that anything other than a win over Arsenal on their first proper European night would have been total disaster. It would have been something akin to throwing a house party in a house you didn’t really own, as one by one it dawned on your guests you were a fraud.
The club’s efforts to return to the halcyon days of 2013/14 have been admirable, but they’ve seemed in vain. You feel if it was within the realm of possibility to return to those days via time machine, they would have stumped up for it. They missed Diego Costa, he missed them — they missed bigger targets in the transfer market and struggled with their younger transfers’ trajectories, too. For every step forward they took, it was another one back to where they started.
Now though, they have Costa back, a lot of their younger promises are coming of age and they have a perfect blend of bright futures and bastards in place as they potentially blossom into a team that knows what it feels like to compete again.
In what might be serendipity for Atlético, they are close to re-embarking on a journey that started with the Europa League: Diego Simeone is on the verge of building his second domestic and continental powerhouse
It all started on May 9, 2012. On that day, a trip to Bucharest culminated in a Europa League win over Athletic Bilbao. Atlético were in the first year of what has become the most important coaching tenure in the club’s history. As of now, only a couple of Luis Aragonés’ spells in charge even come close, and Simeone’s longevity in a period where patience and time are foreign concepts is pushing him further to the top of the list.
El Cholo has built one great team during his spell as Atlético manager: the same one that brought them a league title and a Champions League final appearance. Every other one was a cheap imitation — a Wanda Metropolitano night compared to a Vicente Calderon one.
That team ground opponents into dust and had no problem doing the same to themselves in the process. They were relentless. Everyone knew that fact and the only opponents they had were themselves: “how can we outdo the last heroic performance?” They were sadists who got results.
In order for Simeone’s Atlético to reach those heights and inspire those fears once more, it’s important that this team is kept together. Jan Oblak at €100 million is looking cheaper by the save — and if you ask Luis Suárez, Antoine Griezmann’s transfer to Barcelona is done. But even if the Frenchman goes, Atleti can and need to re-invest that money to make sure that the jigsaw they have been working so hard to complete doesn’t get toppled over.
To that effect, Cholo sent a message to the board after the Espanyol loss at the weekend — a message you hope doesn’t fall on deaf ears.
“We are very few,” the Argentine stated. “Costa was suspended, Correa was suspended, Diego Godín is 32, Gabi is 34. We are very short.”
Simeone deserves all the players he asks for in the summer. Rodrigo Hernández is already coming from Villarreal. If he wants Samu Castillejo from the same club, the board has to make it happen. Paulo Dybala might be too expensive, but if Cholo desires Edinson Cavani or Rodrigo Moreno as Griezmann’s replacement? Make it happen. A new full back? Sign him up as soon as possible. The man Atlético want to be their Sir Alex Ferguson hasn’t been shy of offers but has repelled each one in order to try and figure this thing out. After the second Champions League final defeat, which might have sent many lesser men to the looney bin, Simeone stood firm after a slight wobble.
“I need time to think things over,” he said, later remarking that what happened at San Siro was “a death.”
For a moment, Atlético supporters imagined a future (or reimagined a past) with an endless cast of revolving managers — just like a parent bringing home new partners after the divorce, none of them ever coming close to the original. But Simeone’s pragmatism is matched only by his optimism and he has stayed.
Atlético’s gentrification might continue in the palco but with Simeone on the touchline, it will always be a matter of substance over style — Atleti versus the world. Most recently, it was constantly the past versus the present, and the past always won. But that too might be changing.