There was no place on the 10-man shortlist for 2013 Coach of the Year for Diego Simeone. Even by Fifa’s standards, forgetting about the manager who had not long since won the Europa League, European Super Cup and Spanish Cup seemed negligent.
The oversight also helped Atletico Madrid to maintain one of the best-kept secrets in football – they have not just one of the top 10, but one of the best four managers in European football right now.
Simeone’s results and the methods he articulates so well and then puts into stunningly effective practice have won admirers, convinced doubters, and pleased old friends who always knew he could become an even better coach than he was a player.
Fernando Torres, who faces him on Tuesday night in Chelsea colours, used to jump up and down to the terrace chant of “Olé, olé, olé, Cholo Simeone” when the Argentine was captain of the 1995-96 double- winning team at Atletico Madrid. He later became a team-mate in Simeone’s second spell at the club.
A guide to the Champions League semi-finalists
A guide to the Champions League semi-finalists
1/4 REAL MADRID
Best: Winners (1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1966, 1998, 2000, 2002)
Star man: Cristiano Ronaldo
Manager: Carlo Ancelotti – has won the league in England, France and Italy, as well as the Champions League twice with Milan, and is now expected to deliver ‘la decima’ – Real Madrid’s tenth European title
Top scorer: Cristiano Ronaldo (14)
Top assist: Karim Benzema/Angel Di Maria (both 5)
Overview: After sailing through the group stages unbeaten, and then dispatching Schalke 9-2 in the last 16, Real Madrid were the form team in the tournament until their scare against Dortmund. The 2-0 defeat in Germany, albeit without their talisman Ronaldo, has revealed a chink in the armour, but you still wouldn’t want to draw them.
Best: Winners (2012)
Star man: Eden Hazard
Manager: Jose Mourinho – The ‘Special One’ is looking to become the first manager to win the competition with three different teams having succeeded at Porto and Inter
Top scorer: Samuel Eto’o/Demba Ba/Fernando Torres (all 3)
Top assist: Oscar (4)
Overview: Despite losing twice to unfancied Basel, Chelsea topped their group and saw off the tricky task of Galatasaray in the last 16. Needed a last minute goal to scrape past PSG in the quarter-final, and will go into the semi-finals as underdogs – as they did in 2012.
3/4 BAYERN MUNICH
Best: Winners (1974, 1975, 1976, 2001, 2013)
Star man: Franck Ribery
Manager: Pep Guardiola – in his first season at Barcelona he won a treble that included the Champions League, and he’s on course to do the same in his first season at Bayern. If he does it his place among the greats will no longer be in doubt.
Top scorer: Thomas Muller (5)
Top assist: Arjen Robben/Phillip Lahm (both 3)
Overview: Aside from a defeat at home to Manchester City, by which stage qualification was already secured, Bayern have been almost perfect, blowing away Arsenal and Manchester United in the knock-out stages. Favourites to become the first team in the Champions League era to retain the title.
4/4 ATLETICO MADRID
Best: Runners-up (1974)
Star man: Diego Costa
Manager: Diego Simeone – the only manager left who was at his club last season, Simeone has built a team performing beyond the resources of Atletico, with a real shot at a first Spanish title since 1996.
Top scorer: Diego Costa (7)
Top assist: Gabi (4)
Overview: Atletico are the only unbeaten team left in the competition, and having seen off Milan and Barcelona they deserve their place in the semi-finals. They may be the only team left never to have won a European title, but they can no longer be considered underdogs, and everyone will want to avoid them.
“This [leading La Liga and being in the Champions League last four] is a triumph of his values of hard work and sacrifice,” Torres says. “He has been able to unite everyone at the football club. Without him this winning team would never have happened.”
When Simeone turned up in December 2011, Atletico were closer to the bottom than the top of La Liga. His unique management style has made them title favourites with four games left.
“I don’t know how all this will end but there are a lot of supporters from other smaller clubs watching us thinking, ‘We want to be doing what they are doing’. We are fighting against two monsters with huge squads, great players and top managers,” he says of the assault on Real Madrid and Barcelona.
Simeone’s dad Carlos is not surprised by his football-mad son’s success. “We bought a fort for him when he was a kid and he turned it into a football stadium,” he says.
Carlos took Diego as a four-year-old to local Buenos Aires side Palermo and he was spotted at the age of eight by Velez Sarsfield, where he stayed until he had become a regular in the first team.
The father-son relationship through his playing days – with Carlos banned from shouting advice at his young son as soon as it became apparent that no one needed to tell him what to do on the pitch – remained when Simeone became a coach.
When managing River Plate in 2008 he called his father to tell him he was set to leave out the club’s big centre- forward Sebastian Abreu so he could pick Radamel Falcao in front of the diminutive trio of Diego Buonanotte, Ariel Ortega and current Barcelona winger Alexis Sanchez. His dad said he loved the team. But Simeone recounts that when River Plate lost the game against arch-rivals Boca Juniors his father called him up to say: “What kind of team selection was that? Why didn’t you play the big centre-forward?”
The next generation of the Simeone clan all look like being players too. Giovanni is a 19-year-old striker at River Plate; Gianluca a 14-year-old also at River; and midfielder Giuliano is the youngest, of whom granddad Carlos says: “He could be even better than his dad.”
There is a family feel too about the Atletico Simeone has built. Pre-match meals are eaten around one big table on the coach’s orders. And team talks are given before lights out because, according to Simeone: “It’s the best time to talk to your children; it’s when they are most responsive. I feel like the players are my children.”
Many predicted that Atletico would burn out before the end of the season but the passion of Simeone and his team has sustained the charge. His life-long friend German “Mono” Burgos is his No 2, playing bad cop to Simeone’s good cop; fitness coach Oscar Ortega has helped create the intensity of Atletico’s football. “Solidarity and commitment” will be the usual message tonight as Ortega takes the players through their warm-up.
It has been an emotional season up until now and Simeone shows just how much he loves the game when he ponders the end of the campaign. “I’m torn between wanting it to end and not wanting it to end,” he says. “When it ends, especially if it ends well, then great, but I know that it will leave a big hole.”
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