Why January’s best signing could fire Atletico to glory


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Diego Simeone had done his work for the night. It was 90 minutes after the final whistle and he'd led his side to a 1-1 draw in Camp Nou, the vital away goal earned by one of the goals of the season. The Argentine, one of four South American Diegos at the Calderon, did his press conference and was the more satisfied of the two Argentine bosses after a match in which Brazilians scored both goals.

As the clock neared midnight, Simeone walked away from the pitch and up a dark tunnel to the red and white Atleti team bus. It didn't matter that Barça had 72% of possession, his side had got a result. Simeone was now in the Atletico mixed zone among the familiar journalist faces to whom he speaks every day.

Looking like a man content with the world, the suited boss relaxed, smiled and shook hands. Atletico is a big club, but it still has a family feel at heart compared to Spain's giant two. Even Manchester City attracted far more attention when they visited Barcelona a month ago, with the mixed zone packed with a hundred journalists. After Atleti played Barca, there were 20.

Simeone's players were equally effusive. They smiled as they'd done a job on Barcelona. Once again the headline maker was a Diego, though not Simeone or Costa nor Godin as would have been predicted pre-match. Costa had limped off the pitch after 29 minutes to be replaced by Diego Ribas, a 29-year-old attacking midfielder who signed from Wolfsburg in January.

Atletico had fallen away in their league challenge last season because their squad lacked the depth to deal with injuries. Seven points clear of Real Madrid last January, they eventually finished below them. They wanted, naturally, to avoid a repeat, though their players admitted it was almost impossible to compete with Spain’s big two, who both have budgets four times the size.

"It’s really difficult to fight Real Madrid and Barcelona,” says Brazilian full-back Felipe Luis. "Real Madrid can afford to buy a €40m (£33m) player and leave him on the bench. Barcelona can do the same thing. This makes a big difference in a 38-match league. Atletico have got a great squad, a very competitive one, but for 20 games, not 38. Their budget is much bigger than ours. At the end of the day, it makes the difference."

That's one reason why Atleti signed Diego Ribas. They couldn't afford a Mata, but they could get a player who they knew had a deteriorating relationship with his former club. Ribas had been the highest earner at Wolfsburg, but his relationship had soured. It made excellent business for Atletico, getting a player of Ribas' technical ability.

He'd been a Bundesliga player of the year with Werder Bremen in 2007, the year he won goal of the season. He'd also played at Santos, Porto, Bremen and Juventus, as well as Atletico on loan in 2011-12. He was reluctant to leave Atletico then, but they couldn't afford his buy-out clause and he returned to Germany. Still, fans in Madrid remembered him well after his loan appearances when he also scored a goal in the Europa League final.

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This was a top player for whom Juventus had paid €24.5m in 2009. And Atletico, who paid just €2m for David Villa, signed him for just €1.3m on January transfer deadline day on a contract until the end of the season. The low price came because of his wages, but also because he was seen as a fading talent, one who hadn't quite reached the levels expected when he broke into the Brazil team in 2003. They said similar of Eric Cantona before he came to England.

With the support of his boss, Diego worked hard and became a regular starter. Though not a 90-minute player - he doesn't need to be. He's boosted Atletico's squad when it needed a top up, but Camp Nou on Tuesday saw his best moment for the Rojiblancos so far and nobody could see it coming.

In the 56th minute, he received the ball 30 metres from goal, turned and struck a shot which pinged through the air into the top corner, stunning Barcelona's stand-in goalkeeper Jose Manuel Pinto, his team-mates and all but 1,000 supporters in the 80,000 crowd.

"When I saw the ball go in I almost wanted to celebrate it, it was a tremendous goal," Barcelona coach Gerardo Martino told journalists.

"I was in a perfect position on the touchline and when he took the shot I knew it was going in," added Simone before his walk up the tunnel. "I felt pure joy. The team needed Diego to demonstrate what he is worth and he did that, and he also needed to demonstrate his worth to everyone else."

Neymar's 70th-minute equaliser meant it wasn't the match winner, but Atletico will begin the second leg with that stunning away goal against a team they've drawn with in all four meetings this season. They know all about all about the importance of such goals: they lost the Spanish Super Cup to one against Barcelona in August and are feeling vengeful.

Atletico will miss Costa, who is unlikely to play in the second leg, but in Ribas they have a player of whom their boss said: "I'm delighted for him because he's been working so hard in silence and today was an example that hard work always pays off in football."

That boss should also take credit for such an intelligent signing, one which helped them keep winning. With six weeks of the season remaining they top the league and are still in the Champions League. This was not expected.

"It was a great goal and I'd like to dedicate it to the team for their confidence in me," said Ribas. Then he too went up the tunnel to get on the happy bus back to the airport.

Andy Mitten - @AndyMitten

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