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Champions were 2-1 down to Valencia in the 90th minute yet somehow won. Will it help Diego Simeone find their identity?
“It’s life itself.” On Friday afternoon Diego Simeone said Atlético Madrid hadn’t been through anything like this in the years he had been there. That’s how bad things had got. The very next day they went through something they hadn’t experienced in the 118 years anyone had been there. That’s how good it got, how much they had needed this. “Madness,” Ángel Correa called it. “Incredible,” José María Giménez offered. It was “unbelievably beautiful,” Matheus Cunha said. It was also a timely reminder of who they are. At least, they hoped so.
“What did you feel?” Simeone was asked when it was over, everyone exhausted but alive again, the final whistle coming on 100.51 with Atlético having somehow beaten Valencia 3-2 at the Metropolitano, the club’s anthem belted out like an act of faith. “What did I feel? Pfff. That this place is wonderful where I am. And every time you see it getting away, ah, I want to reach out and grab it even tighter.” They certainly have to hold on to something, and maybe this was it. “There are nights that stay with you; this is one,” Simeone said.
This was “D Day: origin of evil”, AS had claimed on Saturday morning, and it had been set to be a disaster. Three days earlier the same paper declared Atlético had hit “rock bottom” but they hadn’t stopped yet. In a week they had been beaten by Athletic in the Super Cup and deservedly knocked out of the Copa del Rey by Real Sociedad. Beaten four times in December, they had collected four of 18 points and started the weekend 16 behind Real Madrid, their season over. Now, on a night of “barbaric cold,” in Giménez’s words, they were losing again.
Atlético were 2-0 down to the team who had most exposed their vulnerability, coming back from 3-1 down to draw 3-3 with two goals in added time in November, foreshadowing their fall. Three teams were lined up to take a Champions League place off them and two more could climb to within a point. But it wasn’t just that; it was that, by Simeone’s own admission, they had done “absolutely nothing” they wanted. When Yunus Musah scored the first, it was the 25th league goal Atlético had conceded – as many as in the whole of last season, no longer good at the things that defined them. It was nicely taken; it was also dreadfully defended, and still it wasn’t as bad the second, scored by Hugo Duro and assisted by half the Atlético team.
“My heart hurt,” Simeone said.
There was, he admitted, “desperation, anxiety, sadness about what was happening to us”, not least because it had happened before. At half time he told his players that they could lose, but not like this. Ultimately, they didn’t lose at all. Correa came on at the break, Cunha was introduced 12 minutes later for Lemar, and centre-back Felipe replaced João Félix. That decision drew whistles, but it worked. “In the second half I could see something I identify with,” Simeone said. Cunha scored the first after an hour but going into the last minute Atlético were still losing 2-1. They had never won a league game from that position.
Now, they did. On 89.58, Correa made it 2-2, dashing into the net to get the ball back. On 92.13, Mario Hermoso made it 3-2. Between the equaliser and the winner, the ball had only been in play 46 seconds. Now suddenly, Luis Suárez was leaping on to Hermoso’s back, crashing to the ground, teammates chasing. From the touchline they came too, 11 men sprinting towards the south end. In the leading pack, Simeone was flat out. From the tunnel came Antoine Griezmann, injured and unavailable but moving fast, leaping into them and almost sending Simeone to the turf.
As he headed back towards the bench, Simeone’s head lolled and his legs gave way, looking to the sky about to cry like a marathon runner approaching the line, nothing left. He paused, put his hands on his knees and spat, as if post-puke, a portrait of the pressure. There were eight more minutes to endure: when the final whistle went, for once Simeone didn’t sprint straight up the tunnel. Instead, Valencia’s players were first, one booting the wall, a miracle he didn’t break his foot. “This can’t happen; we have to defend tooth and nail,” Duro said. His teammates said worse things, if they said anything. Another sat on the stairs alone, silently waiting for an opponent’s shirt. By the time he arrived, he had given it away.
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They all had. Simeone had embraced them all, leaping into Lemar, strangling Suárez, leading them towards the fans to throw their shirts into the stands. “Any other fans would have turned against us,” Simeone said. Can you explain what that felt like, Cunha was asked. “No,” he said and started laughing. “To be honest, no.”
It is not the only thing that evades easy explanation; the whole season does, that Atlético again found themselves needing to come from behind, why their title defence ended so fast. The hope now is that this can be a turning point – a phrase just about everyone used afterwards. “I’m convinced,” Correa said. “We needed this.” Hermoso added: “It’s been difficult since the [last] Valencia game; what better day to turn it around?”
“The first half is not us, the second is,” Simeone said, which was partly the point: too often that first half has been them. This is a recurring theme, a question of identity: who they are, what they want to be and how. Asked why this Atlético is not Atlético, there was something pointed in his response: “Maybe the coach doesn’t clearly individualise which players can transmit what we saw in the second half. [He has] to identify those who can do that.”
This season Yannick Carrasco – fabulous on Saturday – has started 18 of 21 games. Hermoso has too, in different roles. Koke, left out recently, has started 16. No one else is over 14. One of them, Marcos Llorente, has not had a defined role. Another, Suárez, has not scored since the Valencia game, often withdrawn early and increasingly often not starting. Stefan Savic has been injured and missed. So too Giménez. Griezmann needs accommodating. Correa somehow never quite feels like an automatic first choice.
“When they score the second goal you start to think: ‘why is this happening to us?’” Correa admitted. So why is it? “I don’t know,” he replied. “I couldn’t explain it to you, but it’s a reality.” Sometimes the margins are fine: expected goals, for and against, suggest Atlético shouldn’t have dropped so many points. Even Jan Oblak has looked normal, not the saviour he was. But chance is an unsatisfactory explanation even when it does play a part, which it always does. Last year too, Atlético had been forced into rescuing results in an extraordinary run in, but they did win the league.
And maybe that’s part of it too. Success shifts things, shaping expectation, mind-sets, group dynamics, altering or even eliminating the sense of resistance or rebellion, of collective cause. Signings do too. Administering abundance is not the same, creating different challenges. Who are they? The league champions, supposedly the best squad Atlético have ever had.
“For a team like Atlético it’s not easy to be champions; it’s a club not used to being champions every year,” Simeone said. “They were champions after 25 years [actually 22, from 1977 to 1996]. We took it to 18 [between 1996 to 2014], then seven [from 2014 to last season]. You have to maintain that [trend] and it takes a lot to do that. You have to prove yourself daily; nothing you did before counts; what counts is what lies ahead. That has to be a lesson to teach for me and the players to the path now.”
Espanyol 1-4 Real Betis, Atlético Madrid 3-2 Valencia, Sevilla 2-2 Celta Vigo, Villarreal 3-0 Real Mallorca, Levante 0-2 Cádiz, Alavés 0-1 Barcelona, Real Sociedad 0-0 Getafe, Rayo Vallecano 0-1 Athletic Bilbao, Real Madrid 2-2 Elche, Granada 0-2 Osasuna
“When you win the league, lots of teams relax because they say ‘well, it’s happened’,” Giménez said. “Four new players came and the team relaxes a bit. You think that if they score, no worries, you have players who can win it for you [still], and that was a bit what happened to us. Last season, games started and we would bite. This year, I see a slight relaxation in comparison. We were first to the challenges, the loose balls, we were aggressive in the areas, we defended games to the end. This year, that wasn’t happening. Why? Because we have a great team, but a great team is built on results too.
“Today, it did: hopefully this can be the push we need to be better,” Giménez added, “but you have to believe it: you can’t say ‘done’, next week we win just with the shirt. This is a turning point we have to grab. In the end, what you need is a win. What you need is this. If you play like you always played, like Atlético Madrid, you can win any game.”