For the first time in the history of the European Cup, the final of the 2014 UEFA Champions League paired together two teams from the same city. As with any inter-city footballing neighbours, the rivalry between Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid is fierce. This is only accentuated by the inferiority complex adopted by the former.
Commonly associated with Real Madrid, for example, is the era of the Galacticos, one of the biggest fanbases in football, and now ‘La Decima’ – Real Madrid’s 10th European cup title.
On the other hand, Atletico ae better associated with a conveyor belt of top strikers such as Fernando Torres, Radamel Falcao, and Diego Costa. Unfortunately, these names do not flatter Atletico in the same way that the Galacticos flatter Real. The first 2 strikers were lured towards the glamour and glitz of Liverpool and Monaco. Diego Costa, Atletico’s current frontman, now also appears destined to abandon this year’s Champions League runner-ups and national champions, this time in favour of Chelsea.
This inability to retain world-class talents, as well as Atletico’s comparative lack of success, has created what feels like an inevitable small-club mentality.
The Champions League final presented the perfect opportunity for Atletico to take the top dog position not just in Madrid, or even in Spain, but in European football as a whole. Their recent league title had injected the club with a sense of newfound belief. Moreover, their hugely popular manager Diego Simeone, a title winner as a player at Atletico, was able to fire confidence into Madrid’s slightly less successful powerhouse.
However, despite Godin’s looping header to send Atletico into the lead and into hysteria, Real were able to fight back with an injury-time equaliser and 3 goals in extra time, emphatically securing the victory. Nevertheless, Atletico have showed the world that La Liga is not the 2-horse race that it has been supposed to be. Similarly, they have handed their rivals a fierce warning that Real’s position as champions of Madrid is not to be taken for granted.
The question on everyone’s lips now is whether or not Atletico will be able to maintain their exceptional form beyond this season. What makes a prediction on the topic notably easier, however, is the clear comparison that can be made between Atletico and Borussia Dortmund.
As with Atletico, Dortmund were last year’s Champions League runners-up. As with Atletico, they lost to their bitter rivals, Bayern Munich. As with Atletico, they had an inspirational manager (in their case in the shape of Jurgen Klopp, who was able to create a winning mentality around the club). Most striking of all is the similarity in the way in which the 2 teams surged in influence. Neither have been long-term title challengers, yet both had clinched a rare title in the road to the final (although 2 of Dortmund’s titles did come in the 2 years prior to their cup final).
Atletico may be left with too seriously depleted a squad to mount another Champions League challenge
However, the next set of similarities stop looking quite so rosy. This season, following their consecutive league victories and Champions League final, Dortmund crashed out of the Champions League in the quarter final to Real Madrid, having beaten them in last year’s semi-finals. Neither were they able to retain the Bundesliga trophy, trailing champions Bayern Munich by an unsurpassable 19 points.
While this doesn’t account for a wholly unsuccessful season, Dortmund’s future is looking bleak. Their 2 star players, Mario Goetze and Robert Lewandowski, have both signed for arch rivals Bayern Munich. The exodus may continue, with Marco Reus refusing to commit himself to a new contract amidst speculation linking him to Manchester United, and with Ilkay Gündoğan allegedly being pursued by Arsenal.
This, of course, is not a guaranteed prophecy. It may be the case that Atletico’s players are more loyal than those at Dortmund, or they may simply not be as highly sought after. The evidence, however, does not support this alternative perspective. Star striker Diego Costa is reportedly close to finalising a move to Chelsea, along with Felipe Luis and Tiago Mendes. He will be following Atletico goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, who unless Atletico make a move to sign, will be returning to his parent club Chelsea from his loan spell. The rumours do not stop here, with Diego Godin being linked to Inter Milan, and both Arda Turan and Miranda being chased by Manchester United.
The sceptic will argue that rumours are often far detached from reality. Nevertheless, Courtois is a Chelsea player, and it will require an expenditure on Atletico’s part simply to keep their squad together. Even if only a few of these rumours go on to become a reality, Atletico will be left with a seriously depleted squad to mount another Champions League challenge.
Simeone has defined the club with an admirably solid defensive style of play
Should the mass exodus occur, Atletico will hope that they can tempt a new batch of world-class players to the Vicente Calderón Stadium. The issue here though is Atletico’s lack of pulling power in the transfer market. Primarily, 3 players have been speculated to be nearing a move to the Spanish capital. Santos striker Leandro Damiao and Spurs’ Robert Soldado both appear to be pencilled down as a direct replacement for Chelsea-bound Diego Costa. Slightly more leftfield is San Lorenzo’s teenage striker Angel Correa. The 19 year-old Argentinian has reputedly already agreed terms with Atletico, pending a medical.
Assuming an intention of improvement, the players brought in by Atletico should at least be on a par with those departing. However, as a replacement for Diego Costa, neither Damiao nor Soldado will suffice. Damiao, repeatedly linked with Spurs over the last few years, has fallen off the radar since a surprising move from Internacional to Santos. His demise has been to the extent that he has been left out of Luiz Felipe Scolari’s 23-man World Cup squad this summer. Similarly, Soldado has been excluded from Vincente Del Bosque’s Spanish squad following an uninspiring first season in the Premier League. Angel Correa can neither be deemed a world-class talent, having never played domestic football outside of his native Argentina.
Once again, the similarities with Dortmund are striking. Having sold club heroes Lewandowski and Goetze (with the former only leaving this summer), Dortmund were unable to replace them with players of the same calibre. Instead, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan were drafted in. Neither are bad players, both of them certainly deserve to be plying their trade in the Champions League. Nevertheless, they seem unsuited to a team with ambitions of the Champions League trophy, as is reflected by Dortmund’s comparatively unsuccessful season.
If Atletico want to mount a consistent challenge for the Champions League and La Liga, their signings will need to match the calibre of those leaving. If current speculation is anything to go by, this seems doubtful. Furthermore, Atletico’s small reputation in comparison with the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona will do them no favours in the transfer market.
The saving grace for Atletico may be their manager, Diego Simeone. Despite propelling Atletico up the league table, and launching a ferocious Champions League challenge, Simeone is yet to be publically sought after for any managerial positions. The Argentine has defined the club with an admirably solid defensive style of play, winning the unadulterated respect of both players and fans alike in the process.
One would hope though that such a popular figure at the helm would act as more of an incentive for players to stay at the Spanish outfit. Unfortunately, the evidence has been to the contrary. Despairing Atletico fans will be asking themselves what more can we do to keep our best players? Is winning the domestic title and reaching the Champions League final under such a well-respected manager insufficient? The sad answer seems to be yes.
A club cannot build a reputation overnight. While Atletico’s success this season will go a long way towards improving the way they are perceived both at home and abroad, to consolidate yourself as one of the world’s elite requires consistent success of the highest order. Until this reputation is firmly established, Atletico will struggle to retain their best players. For this reason, it seems fanciful to suggest Atletico can maintain this level of success in the long run.
No team can achieve sustainable long-term success while adopting a selling club mentality, which Atletico are in danger of falling into. The very least that can be said is that this summer will be telling for Atletico. Retain their key players, and they have a shot at emulating their recent form next season. Should their players leave, which seems the more likely option, Atletico will struggle to launch any serious La Liga or Champions League challenges in the near future.