Atletico Madrid were yet to taste defeat this season. Yes, they’ve lost games this campaign, notably against Real Madrid and Barcelona, but it’s the psychological defeat handed out by Athletic Bilbao this past weekend that was alien to this season’s Atletico team.
In their 3-0 loss away to Bilbao, Atletico were without the injured Radamel Falcao; Gabi and Mario Suarez were both absent in the middle of the pitch; Cate Diaz partnered Diego Godin in defence; and Koke was on the bench. Ok, there is comfort in knowing that the team were light of some of their most important players, but it was a defeat that stung, it was a defeat that showed that this team can be beaten all over the pitch.
But that’s been the difference this season. Diego Simeone has turned this group of talented players and a club who were perennial losers into the nearest challengers to Barcelona for the La Liga crown.
The Madrid derby against Jose Mourinho’s team was a scrappy affair that betrayed the positive work ethic of Atletico and the spellbinding talent of Real’s attack. In the following league game, Simeone’s team smashed six past Deportivo. Falcao scored five.
In the match against Barcelona at the Camp Nou later that month, they took the lead via Falcao when the Colombian accelerated past a hapless Sergio Busquets and cheekily chipped Victor Valdes. Atletico looked fearless, they chased down Barcelona’s attackers and really forced the Catalans to raise their game. It was one of the more intriguing high-profile games we’ve seen this season in Spain.
But it’s Falcao’s name that is continuously linked away, with Chelsea pushing their way to the front of the queue and Real Madrid also making their interest heard. It seems an inevitability that the striker will move on from the Vicente Calderon at the end of the season, but is it as straight forward as that?
Let’s make this clear: this is a new Atletico team, a team who know how to win and who have tasted phenomenal success in the form of silverware since Simeone has taken charge. It spoke volumes of the Argentine’s impact last year when many were arguing that he should be in the mix as one of the top three managers in Europe when awards were recently handed out. It should send waves around Europe that this Atletico side are second in La Liga, ahead of a team managed by Jose Mourinho and led by Cristiano Ronaldo and his 35 goals in all competitions. Forget what’s going on at Real Madrid for a moment; that is outstanding from Atletico.
This is a team who are a sure bet to be playing Champions League football next season, and it seems beyond doubt that they’ll go straight into the draw after finishing either second or third (there’s hope for something more, but hugely unlikely). They’re into the semi-final of the Copa del Rey, and if they beat an under-performing Sevilla side who have only recently appointed Unai Emery to take over from Mauricio Pellegrino, they will got to the final and face either Barcelona or Real. Falcao hasn’t been used in the Europa League and they’re through to the next round; they remain second and well within touching distance of another trophy this year to add to the UEFA Super Cup. Remember, Barcelona aren’t invincible, as Real Sociedad proved last week. So whatever way you want to cut it, this Atletico side are taking the fight to all fronts.
But the question is why would Falcao stay? Well, why not? It could all be talk to keep the situation calm and the ship steady until the end of the season, but he’s said he’s comfortable at Atletico. Comfort is one thing. Yes it’s nice and he’s a hero. Trophies have already been won and there could be more. Well there is almost a certainty that trophies will be added to his cabinet at Chelsea, and certainly Real Madrid. But the bigger picture is his relationship with Simeone. It’s clear the manager sees a little bit of himself in Falcao. There’s no jealousy or rivalry for supremacy; El Tigre knows he’s the top dog at the Vicente Calderon, but could he have done it without a manager like Simeone? Players like Falcao don’t come around very often, and they don’t always need a partnership with a strong manager. However, Gregorio Manzano’s short reign at the club really didn’t bring much out from anyone. Yes there were goals, but not like this.
Falcao knows he’s hot property and that he can demand whatever he wants. He’s a player who falls into the minuscule category of world talents who are the closest thing to a guarantee in football. If you have Falcao leading the line for your team and a strong support behind him, take that one to bank.
What can England and even Real Madrid offer Falcao? Money, of course, but what else? Let’s not take anything away from his current team-mates: this is a wonderful group of talented individuals at the Vicente Calderon, of which all of the starting XI could strongly argue their way into the first XI of the very best in the Premier League. Simeone’s future remains the priority, but the club are not afraid to add quality when they see a deal. Rayo Vallecano’s fabulous 20-year-old sensation Leo Baptistao is reported to be on his way in the summer, and Depor’s Pizzi will also wear the colours of Los Colchoneros, another player who has been fantastic to watch this season.
If a trophy doesn’t come this season, Atletico will reshuffle the deck in the summer and have another go next year. They’re playing well, winning football and the whole team are working well for one another. I’m not about to argue that Falcao may stay at the Vicente Calderon for the rest of his playing days; that would be delusional. However, I am saying that there is no rush from anyone at the club to move him on.
Of course, it’s not all in the hands of Atletico. Falcao’s release clause currently sits at 60 million euros, and while they’re powerless to stop the advances of those with the finances available, how many clubs do genuinely have the muscle to push for such a deal? Real Madrid? Unlikely, provided they can raise significant funds via the sale of current players (Ronaldo maybe). Chelsea? Yes, it’s possible, but even Roman Abramovich may be a little shy of parting with that sort of cash following his last £50million signing.
The greater point here is that there may be a real possibility that Falcao stays at his current club for one more season. He’s mentioned in the past that he’d like to experience another league, while at the same time he’s always spoken highly of Real Madrid. But Atletico are one of the best teams to watch on the continent with one of the best young managers. Notably, their away record hasn’t been equal to that of their excellent home record, but it’s something they’ll surely be looking to iron out.
The upside if Falcao is sold is that the team will have the finances to replace him. History suggests they’re certainly not reluctant to spend big. But for now, this new, winning Atletico may have too much of a good thing going on. It would of course be a wonderful thing for Spanish football if Atletico can keep Falcao for at least one more year. And with Simeone at the helm, that may be the biggest trophy on offer.