At the end of his post-match press conference on Wednesday night, Diego Simeone signed off by thanking the mothers of all his players, citing their bravery in taking Atletico Madrid past Chelsea and into the final of the Champions League. How many supporters are thanking the mother of Simeone for gifting them this incredible run of success?
Think about where this team were before Simeone’s arrival in December 2011. Yes, they had won the Europa League under Quique Sanchez Flores in 2010, but the club were in disarray, financially crippled and without leadership, either on the field or off.
Following that European triumph, Gregorio Manzano came in for a short period, seeing the team to a 10th place position ahead of his dismissal in December and a Copa Del Rey elimination at the hands of Albacete, a team from Spain’s third tier.
Simeone has turned a club from underachievers into potential Spanish and European champions. He’s brought home trophies in each of his last two seasons with Atletico and has now displaced one of Europe’s master tacticians.
It was the case during the fallout from Tuesday’s semi-final match. Pep Guardiola was questioned, tiki-taka was thought to be dead. The theme of the post-game analysis generally failed to acknowledge Guardiola’s opposite number and how much better Carlo Ancelotti’s Real Madrid were to Bayern Munich.
Again following Wednesday’s game, Mourinho’s tactics were up for debate. To most it’s boring; those who have felt its sting have branded it ‘anti-football.’ But like Guardiola’s system, Mourinho’s is in need of tweaking. The base of a winning formula is there, it just needs building upon.
On Wednesday night, Mourinho was countered by a manager who had mastered the art of the Portuguese’s go-to game plan. Simeone’s side were defensively brilliant, the back line protected by former Chelsea midfielder Tiago in the absence of Gabi and alongside Mario Suarez. Can there be any doubt now that Thibaut Courtois is indeed the best goalkeeper in Europe? Koke, placed on the right but pretty much all over the pitch, added the cunning to retain the ball in tight areas and the invention to craft scoring opportunities.
Simeone’s is a team perfectly constructed to carry out the frustrate-and-break tactics Mourinho has long stood by. There are no superstars in the Atletico side; good players, potentially great in the future, but to borrow a term from their city rivals, no Galacticos.
They worked tirelessly, feeding off the emotion and passion from the away dugout at Stamford Bridge. When the job looked over and done with at 3-1, Atletico played some of their most attractive football of the season, passing effortlessly around the pitch and frustrating the home side.
For those who want to see a little imagination to the defensively sound model of counterattacking football, Atletico offered it up. Arguably, it was the right way to go about deploying such tactics and something Mourinho should wrap up and absorb going into next season.
Atletico were in control, even ahead of kickoff. The way the game played out simply highlighted how valuable an away goal is. It told by Atletico’s players not dropping their heads when former club favourite Fernando Torres put Chelsea ahead.
Atletico were in control and knew when and how to change up their game. Some of the criticism of Mourinho post-match has again centred on the lack of creativity in the side. Juan Mata’s loss is still felt, despite Eden Hazard’s good form throughout the season. And as good as he is, Oscar is simply not a No.10. Throughout this season, this Chelsea team have looked short on ideas on how to break teams down.
Going into the final, Simeone is unlikely to be thinking about the term underdog, and nor should most others. Note the coolness under pressure of Courtois at Stamford Bridge, the willingness to pass the ball and attack one of England’s best defences. Atletico have already beaten Real Madrid in a high-stakes final. Over two league games this season, Real have failed to beat their neighbours, some might even say fortunate to come away with a draw in their Vicente Calderon meeting.
There shouldn’t be much sympathy for Mourinho. His game plan was found out by a manager whose resources are nothing in comparison, yet one who effectively played out the brand of football Mourinho longs to conquer the world with.