The Blog

Atletico Madrid: A Side Made In Their Manager's Image

It took 70 long minutes, via a missed penalty from David Villa and a few hairy defensive moments, for Diego Simeone's side to finally edge ahead of their opponents on Friday evening - and those three points leave the hosts sitting pretty atop the table at Easter.

One of the keys to success in football, they say, is winning even when you've not played particularly well.

That statement has never been truer than in the case of Atletico Madrid last week, as they toiled to a 2-0 victory at home to lowly Elche, in the Spanish Primera.

It took 70 long minutes, via a missed penalty from David Villa and a few hairy defensive moments, for Diego Simeone's side to finally edge ahead of their opponents on Friday evening - and those three points leave the hosts sitting pretty atop the table at Easter.

It was, ultimately, one small but significant step closer to their goal. Just four league outings - 360 minutes - remain of this domestic season, and the likelihood is that, should they successfully dispatch of Valencia, Levante and Malaga, the Rojiblancos will have their hands on the trophy before their final day clash with Barcelona at Camp Nou.

It is a quite incredible resurgence from the Madrid side - so often "the other" Madrid side - who, despite selling their star striker, Radamel Falcao, to Monaco in the summer, have only gone from strength to strength this season.

Indeed, having hardly put a foot wrong so far this campaign, Simeone's charges look set to split the Spanish big two for the first time since 2007/8 - and even then it was largely a slump from a pre-Pep Barcelona side which allowed Villarreal to snatch second place.

But much like the success of Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool in the Premier League this season, Atletico have quickly cemented their position as the neutrals' favourites over in Spain, and there is a real feeling that there is a sea change on the horizon in Spanish football.

That widespread affection is not the only similarity that Los Colchoneros share with the Anfield side.

With both teams employing a direct and exciting, fast-flowing style of play, they have each been tearing up their respective divisions with lethal performances, overflowing with goals.

And, in something of a death knell for the often cagey and conservative 4-2-3-1 systems which have infiltrated tactics on the continent, I believe that it is no coincidence that both managers are enjoying so much success from bravely fielding two out and out strikers.

As a player, Simeone was dogged and hard-working - a swashbuckling and tough tackling midfielder, hard in the tackle and with an eye for goal.

Having plied his trade across Europe - first at my hometown club Sevilla, then at Atletico Madrid, before heading to Italy to pull on the blues of Inter and Lazio - he is a man of great experience.

But the bravery that he so often displayed in his playing career is also apparent in his managerial style - and this is a side truly built in his image.

And, down at the Vicente Calderon Stadium, it is David Villa and Diego Costa, with a little help from Adrian, who have been panicking defences all over La Liga this campaign.

It is testament to his faith in his front two that they are both hitting such heights this season.

Indeed, the bargain €5.1 million signing of Spanish international David Villa as he returned from a serious injury which had seen him notch just ten goals in two seasons was a gamble - but one which the striker has quickly repaid.

And Diego Costa, who has suffered lapses in discipline leading to extended bans, not to mention serious injuries of his own, was given undimmed backing and support from the Argentine - and is now widely regarded as one of the most complete strikers on the planet.

Remind you of anyone?

On Merseyside, it is Luis Suarez, a player with a well-publicised history of disciplinary and attitude problems, and Daniel Sturridge, an undoubted talent, but one which has failed to consistently perform at the highest level, who have been banging in the goals left, right and centre.

And those lethal performances look set to fire the Reds to a remarkable title win, some 24 years since their last triumph.

In short, Simeone's influence on this team cannot be overstated. When he arrived in the capital nearly two years ago, his squad was disorganised, unmotivated and going nowhere fast.

But in the time since he took the reins, he has transformed those players into an intense, focused machine - and, make no mistake, this Atletico side believes that it can beat anyone.

And why not? After all, they are unbeaten against both Barcelona and Real Madrid this campaign, winning three and drawing one of their four meetings with the pair, and it's not just domestically that they have been catching the eye.

Following their somewhat surprising defeat of bumbling Barcelona in the Champions League quarter finals a fortnight ago, the Rojiblancos find themselves pitted against Chelsea for a place in the final.

Jose Mourinho takes his side to Spain this weekend for the first leg - and it certainly promises to be a hard-fought and close encounter, with a few dramatic story lines to boot.

First, Atletico's Belgian keeper Thibaut Courtois, on loan from Chelsea, has been given the green light to play in the tie - and, after some outstanding performances from the youngster of late, which have seen him solidify his reputation as the best young keeper on the continent, he will pose a genuine threat to Chelsea's chances of success.

Then, the return of the much-maligned Fernando Torres, to his boyhood - and perhaps next - club.

Indeed, rumours have been hotting up for some time that the Spanish forward, who has never really hit the ground running at Stamford Bridge, could be set to make a swift return to his home country come the end of the season.

And with Diego Costa's performances well known to have been catching the eye in west London, it is a real possibility that there could be a swap deal on the cards which would see the Brazilian-born Spanish international pitch up in the Premier League.

Needless to say, the capture of the poster boy of this Atletico resurgence would be an incredible addition to the Blues squad, especially as their lack of final third cutting edge has been an Achilles' heel all campaign.

After all, as a side gunning for trophies both domestically and on the continent, a front-three consisting of an ageing Samuel Eto'o, an injury-prone Demba Ba and a misfiring Torres simply doesn't cut the mustard - particularly when compared to the wealth of options possessed by the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool.

Of course, that lack of goals was again all too apparent on Saturday, as Chelsea lost 2-1 at home to bottom side Sunderland - a defeat which looks to have put paid to any hopes of knocking Liverpool from pole position.

As a result, the Blues will be pinning all of their silverware hopes on this tie - and increasingly desperate to secure a place in the last two of the European elite.

But, as with their previous clash against Barcelona, Atletico have made a habit on seizing upon that desperation - and will certainly smell blood.

The taste of success is sweet, and, as his side prepare to welcome Mourinho and co to the Vicente Calderon Stadium, Simeone will be desperate to prove that it is he who is the 'Special One'.