"Glory is achieved by fighting", read a huge banner behind one of the goals in the Vicente Calderón before Atlético Madrid's game with Sevilla on Sunday. It was an appropriate message, as Atlético have not gotten where they are this season - second in the league, on 34 points from 13 games and eight points above Real Madrid - by playing sublime, one-touch football.
Coach Diego 'Cholo' Simeone makes no apologies for his side's style of play, constantly going on about the importance of intensity, commitment, and sacrifice. His managerial style has not always been pretty - in his previous job, with Racing Club in Argentina, his team scored just 16 goals in 19 games - but Atlético are capable of playing attractive and effective football, as Chelsea will no doubt testify, having lost 4-1 to them in this year's European Super Cup.
When Simeone took the Atlético job at the end of December 2011, replacing the sacked Gregorio Manzano, he inherited a team that were 11th in the league, four points from the relegation zone and had just been knocked out of the cup by a third division side. A key member of the Atlético team which won the double in 1995/1996, the Argentine received a hero's welcome in his first game back, and in five months took the club to fifth in the table, finishing one point off a Champions League berth and also won the Europa League. Not bad for five months' work.
Expectations were raised this season, but Simeone's side have exceeded them, winning every game in the league bar two, with almost the same nucleus of players that had performed so badly under Manzano.
The game with Sevilla was a massive test, with the Andalusians having battered fierce rivals Real Betis 5-0 the week before, but Simeone's men once again proved they mean business this season, and ran out 4-0 winners. Admittedly they had help, winning a penalty after 20 minutes when Koke was fouled by Federico Fazio, who as the last defender was sent off.
The game had been pretty even until then, but once Radamel Falcao lashed home from the spot to score his 50th goal for 'Los Rojiblancos', there was only going to be one winner. With a goal and an extra man advantage, Atleti smelled blood and went for the kill, doubling their lead on 39 minutes, with Falcao powering his way through the middle and providing a perfect pass for Arda, whose cross-shot was turned in by Emir Spahic. There was still time for a third before the break, with Brazilian forward Diego Costa bursting down the right wing, fighting his way past a defender and delivering a perfect ball for Koke to half-volley in.
With the score a comfortable 3-0, Atlético relaxed somewhat in the second period but Sevilla, who had two further men sent off - including an unused substitute who was sent from bench to the stands for abusing the referee - were never going to get back into the game, and centre-back Miranda tapped into an open goal in stoppage time to send the Calderón into a frenzy, with the chant "Ole Ole Ole, Cholo Simeone" ringing the loudest.
Now all thoughts are on next Saturday's game against Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabéu. For the first time in 14 years, Atleti go into the derby above Real in the league, and are hoping to beat their local rivals for the first time in the 21st century.
The omens are good: while Atleti are flying, things are looking down for Real: Cristiano Ronaldo's future at the club is still uncertain, José Mourinho is at odds with the club's hierachy and paints a downtrodden figure in every press conference, and they lost their last league game, 1-0 to Real Betis, leaving them 11 points behind Barcelona.
It says a lot about the duopoly in Spanish football that the three point gap between Barcelona and Atlético is rarely mentioned, but that might change if Simeone ends the derby curse and Atleti finally beat Real Madrid. Now, for once, they have a chance of doing so.
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