If you’d have asked Atletico Madrid supporters whether they’d accept a 14-year wait to beat Real Madrid with two wins coming along within the space of four months, both being at the Bernabeu and one landing them the Copa De Rey, they’d probably have snapped your hand off.
Further fantasy and uncharted territory has been added to the mix. Not only are Atletico currently as good as Barcelona in La Liga, with both reaching this point in the league season unbeaten, Diego Simeone’s side have a midfielder who could play for Barcelona now and who could possibly replace Xavi in the Spanish national team in the near future.
It can be an eye-opener to realise that Koke is still only 21. He’s not a youngster, though, and he’s not a player with potential to fulfil – he’s done it already. He’s a veteran of two major cup finals over the past two seasons, as well as the UEFA Super Cup win over Chelsea at the start of last season. His name wasn’t brought up as often as Thiago Alcantara or Asier Illarramendi following this summer’s European U21 Championship, but he was just as good.
Spain have known about him, coming through the ranks at Atletico, evolving from a central midfielder to a wide player but with just as clinical a pass. And now, rightly, the rest of Europe are starting to pay attention – and it’s far from fleeting.
Koke is being lined up for a January swoop by Liverpool. You can bet, however, that Diego Simeone will not allow the Vicente Calderon to be besieged. There will be a party waiting to greet any unwanted visitors, with the man mountain German Burgos, Simeone’s assistant, leading the defensive charge if need be.
Diego Costa is taking plenty of plaudits so far this season. The forward has picked up where he left off last term, forcing many to forget Radamel Falcao and allowing Atletico to uncover the Colombian’s replacement in house. But Koke has been just as vital and just as good. It was the 21-year-old who put Costa through on goal for the winner in the Madrid derby earlier this season. It has been Koke, too, who has provided Costa with his most scoring opportunities thus far. At present, Koke stands alongside Cesc Fabregas as the leading assist-maker in La Liga. Koke is industrious, a work horse like Simeone was in his time, but capable of as much elegance as Fabregas.
It’s not just that Liverpool would be a step down for Koke; it’s that most teams in Europe would be a step down.
Spanish football has been burnt too many times with the notion and hope of a new dawn in La Liga: a third power to break up Real Madrid and Barcelona’s stranglehold at the top. But there’s something different about this Atletico, a club who have always had the status but who have been a mess for too long. Simeone has restored pride, organisation, to a degree, from top to bottom, and they’re winning. In comparison to Real Madrid and their unequalled wealth, Atletico have won three trophies under Simeone in the past two years to Real’s two. And here’s the thing: more will come. Unlike others who have fallen once European football had been introduced to the calendar, Atletico are winning, having already beaten Zenit at home and Porto away.
Atletico having good players isn’t anything new. Whether it’s been academy graduates or high-profile names brought in via the market, Atletico have always held hot commodities. But Simeone has turned this into a winning team. Gabi and Mario Suarez are the first-choice central midfield pairing, but Koke drifts in from the wing to provide even more stability defensively and an edge to Atletico’s game that allows for so many scoring opportunities in each game.
Koke, in the progressive mindset of the game, is the perfect midfielder. He’s not as diminutive as his compatriots, standing at 5’10, so he’s able to assert himself in a defence capacity. But he combines that rougher side of his game with the spectacular, such as the cross-field pass to David Villa in the Madrid derby, executed with the outside of his right boot. Had Villa taken the volley first time and scored, it would have been one of the best goals this season in all of Europe.
From a talent standpoint, Koke is a one off. But such is the factory in Spain, there are multiple candidates who could stand forward and legitimately stake a claim to being the replacement for Xavi in the national team. Atletico have one of their own, not a hazy dream well off in the distance, and they’ll battle to keep him.
Why would Liverpool target Koke want to leave Atletico Madrid now?
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