The La Liga has essentially been a duopoly for years, as the romanticism of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona clashed against Real Madrid’s flashier Galacticos. But there’s one team who is looking once again break the mould: Atletico Madrid.
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo were the defining stars of the game, even outside the country, achieving milestones that were once deemed impossible. Then a stranger walked into the seemingly exclusive club duopoly, pushing and dragging his team to the pinnacle.
Atletico’s La Liga triumph in 2013-14 was stunning in every aspect: from their consistency and grittiness, to the fact that they actually did it.
Five seasons later, it might be their time once again. Diego Godin and Juanfran continue to marshal the defence, while Koke has grown into the fulcrum of the midfield.
But elsewhere, the similarities are scarce. Jose Gimenez continues to find himself on the precipice of the first team. Filipe Luis and Diego Costa both left for Chelsea, and then returned after learning there is no place better than Atletico for them.
There has been one constant in all the change, even as the side shifted from the Vicente Calderon to the Wanda Metropolitano: Diego Simeone.
‘El Cholo’ has been the engineer and the catalyst for success, overseeing a revolution at the club by overhauling nearly everything. By doing so, he’s become Atletico in a human persona, a man who lives and breathes Los Rojiblancos. He’s turned down numerous overtures over the past few years to stay at his beloved project. That patience could well be rewarded this season.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure to Juventus was bound to have a long-standing impact, and no team might have been happier to see him fly off than Atletico.
For the city rivals, the Portuguese playmaker has been their bane in big games, stopping two Champions League finals from going Atletico’s way. It might seem reductive to suggest his departure could tilt the scales between the Madrid rivals Atletico’s way, but it sure feels that way.
There’s been no statement signing to throw down the gauntlet and suggest that, yes, Real Madrid can continue their spree of continental success. Therein lies the catch: Real’s three consecutive Champions League wins under Zidane will be remembered in the history books, but it came at the cost of domestic consistency.
Their business this summer is hardly a statement of intent. Alvaro Odriozola is not a first-team starter yet, while Andriy Lunin and Vinicius Junior (even at 45 million) are for the future. Thibaut Courtois, a part of Atletico’s victory five years ago, is a luxury signing, but not a necessity.
There is also the case of their new manager: Julen Lopetegui, who took over in dramatic circumstances. That Zidane felt the cycle was over was indicative, but Lopetegui will have to truly restart without a talismanic figure.
Whether he can balance his new project with immediate success and against the desires of his president remains to be seen. There is no time to fall behind.
Antoine Griezmann, meanwhile, ensured Atletico won the pre-season psychological battle versus Barcelona when he chose to stay rather than move to the Spanish champions.
His decision to announce this via a self-indulging video rubbed further salt in the wounds for the Catalans, who hoped to strengthen and simultaneously weaken a fellow title contender.
Barcelona’s summer was divided between controversy, drama, and progress. Arthur adds a skill-set lacking in the squad, while Clement Lenglet took over from the departing Yerry Mina. Malcom provides an alternative to the star forwards. Arturo Vidal at 31 was strange, given Paulinho’s own return to Guangzhou, but his price reduces much of the risk and should provide a different skillset if needed. Solid squad additions, but nothing more. It remains to be seen if Messi is the deciding factor once again.
Atletico have compensated for their rival’s issues, causing a real stir. Holding onto Griezmann was a success in itself, but they’ve managed to strengthen the squad all over.
Rodri is Gabi’s heir-apparent. Thomas Lemar is their crown jewel of their summer. Gelson Martins is a classic shrewd move, even if Sporting will make them pay eventually. They replaced Sime Vrsaljko smoothly with Santiago Arias; Nikola Kalinic for Kevin Gameiro, Luciano Vietto and Fernando Torres.
There are options all around the pitch, a perfect blend of experience and exuberance, with all the excess fat trimmed off.
It adds to the unpredictability this season. While leagues across Europe might be more one-dimensional, the La Liga is set to be much open, even if the party is open to just three clubs. If Atletico can go one step further in the Champions League, it would cap off a perfect storyline. After all, the final this season will be held in the Metropolitano. That would be a dream for the ages; the right way to triumph after three final losses. Watch out Barcelona and Real Madrid: Atletico are set to come after your titles.