Atletico look ready to challenge Barcelona & Madrid

Diego Simeone’s side defeated Valladolid to make it five wins out of five in La Liga and now seem set to provide firm competition to the established elite in Spain’s top flight

By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer

Atletico Madrid have been here before. Exactly a year ago, Diego Simeone’s side sat in an almost identical position to now: fighting it out with Barcelona at the top of La Liga. Five wins in five games at the start of the Primera Division this term have seen the capital club back at the summit in Spain in 2013-14, but there is one key difference: this time they look better equipped to stay there.

Simeone claimed at the beginning of the season that La Liga was boring. “Madrid and Barcelona play a different championship,” the Argentine explained. “This is a boring championship.”

Yet Atletico’s super start to La Liga has been anything but boring. A 2-0 win at Valladolid on Saturday night arrived courtesy of second-half goals from Raul Garcia and Diego Costa. That followed victories over Sevilla (3-1), Rayo Vallecano (5-0), Real Sociedad (2-1) and Almeria (4-2), as well as an impressive Champions League opening success over Zenit (3-1). And the Rojiblancos ran Barca extremely close over two legs in the Spanish Supercopa too – losing on away goals after a 1-1 draw in Madrid and a goalless game at Camp Nou.

Barcelona beat Rayo Vallecano 4-0 on Saturday, but lost out to the Madrid side in terms of possession – the first time that has happened to the Catalans since 2008.

The Blaugrana have seen less of the ball this season and the latest stat – the first time they had been second best in possession in 317 games – serves to highlight a slight change of direction under Gerardo Martino.

The Barca boss has constantly claimed he is a devotee of the Catalans’ playing philosophy, yet he has also said the Blaugrana will need alternatives to their ‘Tiki-Taka’ style.

Against an aggressive Rayo side, Barca mixed it up with longer passes out from the back. “Rayo press a lot and high up [the pitch],” ‘Tata’ explained.

“Sometimes it was hard to get the ball in play from our goal and in these kind of games, against a rival that presses so intensely, it is sometimes necessary to breathe a little and get the ball in play in another area of the pitch.

And so a new era begins at Barcelona.

Following their European exertions in midweek, Atleti were forced to dig deep on Saturday, but Simeone’s side found the inspiration as Koke first set up Garcia with a fine cross which the midfielder headed home (he is the only player to have netted twice with his head so far in La Liga) and then assisted Diego Costa for the all-important second.

“We waited for our moment and we took advantage of our virtues,” Simeone said afterwards. “We played with a strength and persistence that has made this team so successful.”

Under the Argentine coach, Atletico have enjoyed spectacular success, claiming the Europa League in 2011-12, the Uefa Super Cup and the Copa del Rey last term, as well as qualification for the Champions League via a third-placed finish.

However, the Colchoneros will now look to step up once again – and that’s despite the signigficant loss of striker Radamel Falcao in the summer.

At the moment, Atletico appear to be coping just fine without their former star man. David Villa (three goals so far this term) has settled quickly since his summer signing from Barca, while Costa (with five strikes in all competitions) has stepped up again in 2013-14 after rejecting a switch to Liverpool last month.

Costa was not the only one to choose Atletico when he could have moved on this summer. Arda Turan turned down several offers before signing a new deal recently, while Juanfran ruled out a move to Arsenal in order to pen fresh terms with the Madrid side. The players sense they are part of something exciting, that Atletico is currently a great place to be.

The club’s starting side is indeed impressive, with quality all the way through the line-up: Thibaut Courtois is among the world’s best goalkeepers, Diego Godin is a no-nonsense centre-back, Gabi and Martio Suarez work tirelessly in midfield, while Costa, Villa, Koke and Arda are all top players further forward.

Simeone also has options on the bench. Youngster Oliver Torres is an exiciting talent, while summer signing Leo Baptistao adds attacking alternatives, along with Spain striker Adrian (who is currently sidelined). Tiago will have a part to play in midfield, too, and recent recruit Toby Alderweireld provides another option in defence.

By comparison to Barca and Madrid, Atleti’s squad still seems short and question marks remain over the Rojiblancos‘ stamina – especially after how the team faded in La Liga at the end of last season. But having ended ther hoodoo against Madrid by beating Real in the Copa del Rey final in May (thereby drawing a 14-year winless streak to a close) and also giving Barca a great game in the Supercopa, the Colchoneros have grown in confidence this year.

So with the Catalans and los Blancos still finding their feet somewhat following coaching changes in the summer, Simeone’s side could take advantage and finally challenge the long-established duopoly – not only in the knockout competitions, which up until now have been there speciality, but also in La Liga. And that would be anything but boring.

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