Their side were en route to a typically comfortable 4-1 victory over neighbours Atlético Madrid at the Santiago Bernabéu and the banners raised in the bottom tier of the south stand, behind the goal of Atleti goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo, called for a decent derby rival to step forward. ‘In search of a rival worthy of a decent derby’ it read, unfurled as the club from beside the famous Paseo de la Castellana strolled to a seventh straight derby victory and a 22nd duel with Los Colchoneros without defeat.
Atleti were all at sea that day, as they usually were in derby matches. Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois was sent off in the 21st minute and Diego Godin followed him for an early bath nine minutes before the end. Adrian had given the visitors the hope they so often produce with a 15th-minute opener but there were fe doubts inside the stadium, from those wearing white or those wearing red and white, that the hosts would hit back and win. It was usually a formality, a ‘curse’ according to Atleti fans. A Cristiano Ronaldo penalty levelled things up midway through the first half before Angel Di Maria gave Madrid the lead, Gonzalo Higuain made sure of the result ands Ronaldo rubbed more salt into the Atleti wounds with his second of the game.
Gregorio Manzano was the manager who failed Atleti that day but his case wasn’t unique, plenty had failed before him. Just a month later Manzano was dismissed, a decision taken on the back of a shock Copa del Rey defeat to third-tier Albacete Balompié, and Atlético fans were given the best Christmas present they could have wished for - former club captain Diego Pablo Simeone as the man to lead them forward. At first it looked like a choice by the board to appease the supporters, a club legend back at the Vicente Calderon. It was always going to be risky with the Argentine’s status put at risk but Atleti have not looked back. Almost three years on and they are unrecognisable to that side that wallowed in the shadow of their more illustrious neighbours.
Simeone has almost taken the Madrid calls for a decent derby rival as a mandate on his arrival back in the Spanish capital following a managerial career that started in his homeland with Racing, Estudiantes, River Plate and San Lorenzo and ended up back in the red and white of Atleti via a spell in Italy helping Catania stave off relegation. Since that baiting message, Los Rojiblancos have won on both of their trips to the Bernabéu in La Liga and have a record of three wins, one draw and one defeat from their five matches in all competitions. A decent derby rival has been found and maybe the Vicente Calderon will return the favour with a message of their own when the sides meet next in early February.
The latest result to staple Atleti, the reigning league champions, as a new-found genuine rival for Madrid came on Saturday night as a packed Bernabéu whistled their team through a 2-1 victory for Simeone’s side. It was perhaps well suited that Tiago, a man who looked set for a move away from the Spanish capital in the summer, headed in the early opener from a Koke corner kick. “There came a time in the summer when I realised that the most important thing for me was to feel important at the club,” said the midfielder after agreeing a new deal to stay at the club and not move away for a better offer with Chelsea. “I had options to go, better options in terms of money. I’m not here for money but for the feeling of these colours. I spoke with Cholo [Simeone] and he told me to stay for the next training session. At that time I only thought about returning, wearing this shirt again.”
Simeone has his players going out and fighting blood, sweat and tears for the red and white jersey. The 44-year-old was a natural born fighter and leader, as showcased during his playing days at the club, and now he ensures the eleven men that represent Atleti on a match day replicate that. Tiago is just one example. The difference now, almost three years on from that 4-1 dismantling, is that Atleti’s opener was not a shock. It was not a precursor to a Madrid fightback and another Blancos win, it was almost expected. Cristiano Ronaldo, back in the team following a two-week break to try and put his niggling injury problems behind him, levelled things up from the penalty spot and the hosts took the momentum into half-time. This Atleti side is made of stern stuff, however, and they are not an easy nut to crack.
Carlo Ancelotti and his coaching staff knew full well Atleti’s strengths and how they’re going to play the game but that mattered little - therein lies the real strength of Los Colchoneros. There are no secrets at Atleti but Madrid could not break them and find the winning goal they so desperately craved after a defeat at Real Sociedad last time out. Atleti regathered their thoughts in the second half and nullified their hosts, peppered with big-money players such as Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez in their attack. The pressure was soaked up and Atleti eventually struck their hosts with the killer blow less than ten minutes from time thanks to a fine move which resulted in substitute Arda Turan tucking the ball beyond a desperate Iker Casillas, a man who had lost just one derby match in the lead-up to the game but has now lost two in a row.
While a famous Copa del Rey final victory over Madrid on their own turf in May 2013, Atleti’s first over their neighbours since a 3-1 win in 1999, may have been looked at as a one-off the real mark of the club’s progress under Simeone comes in the shape that victories for the club from beside the Manzanares river are no longer a surprise.
Not only victories in head-to-head matches, either, but in matches that have silverware on the line. Atleti may have lost last season’s Champions League final in cruel fashion against their neighbours, who added a tenth European Cup to their huge trophy cabinet, but they lasted the distance to win La Liga and break the recent Barcelona-Madrid duopoly and showed that they are not one-season wonders with victory over two legs in the Spanish Super Cup last month.
The Bernabéu is a stadium synonymous with breaking records yet it was Atleti setting them on Saturday night. The victory meant it was the first time the club had won back-to-back league matches there and they joined a unique group which also consists of Barcelona, who achieved the feat in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 season, Celta, Mallorca, Betis and Atheltic Bilbao. Simeone also became the first man to lead Atleti to three victories on Madrid’s home turf following the 1-0 success last season and the Copa del Rey triumph at the end of the 2012-13 campaign.
The former Inter Milan and Lazio player is in the middle of serving a touchline ban for his antics in the Spanish Super Cup this season but there is a method to his madness. Take that passion away from the touchline and you take away the thing that drives the managerial mastermind and his team. Simeone sat in the stands on Saturday night but it would be naive to envisage a night without contact with his bench, bossed by assistant German Burgos, despite league rules stating he cannot. With the game at 1-1 the arrivals of Antoine Griezmann, who replaced the disappointing Raul Jimenez, and Arda Turan, who came on for Gabi, swung the game in the visitors’ favour, with the latter scoring the decisive goal. In contrast, Ancelotti brought on centre-back Raphael Varane to replace right-back Alavaro Arbeloa seconds after Turan had tucked home Atleti’s second.
It was the seventh, and final, derby of a tumultuous 2014 for the Spanish capital rivals. In no other year have the neighbours met on so many occasions and that highlights the huge strides forward Atleti have made. In recent years it was Madrid and Barcelona who started to become tired of each other such was the regularity of the matches owing to their success in all competitions but this year was the year of the derby. Madrid may hold the bragging rights with three wins to Atleti’s two, with one of those coming in the biggest match of them all in Lisbon, but Atleti have been the ultimate winners and will finish the year with the last laugh.
All of that should leave Simeone in with a great chance of being named as FIFA World Coach of the Year when the Ballon d’Or ceremony takes place in January. The Argentine hasn’t even made the final top three since its inauguration in 2010, when Mourinho became the first man to win the accolade. That despite the former Atleti captain turning ‘his’team around from zeros to heroes on a relatively limited budget. In just his first year in charge he led his troops to a UEFA Europa League success, beating Athletic Bilbao 3-0 in the final, before masterminding a European Super Cup victory over Chelsea and that famous Copa del Rey final win over Madrid the following year. Now with a Spanish league title to his name and a Champions League runner-up spot, as well as a Spanish Super Cup success, it would be a minor crime not to see ‘Cholo’, as he’s affectionately known, rewarded for his success at the top table.