Sometimes, especially when you’re trying to win just your third title in 42 years, you need things to go your way.
You need the crowd to, almost literally, become your 12th man. You need your substitutes to produce three goals in two games. You need a wonderkid. You need your greatest comeback in a decade. You need your richer, more powerful rivals to drop four or five points across three games. And sometimes you need to suffer a shock, something akin to waking up to find a scorpion in your pajamas. Oh, and a last-minute winner to go five points clear at the top of the table doesn’t hurt either.
Ladies and gentlemen: Welcome to the mad, pulsating, but deeply promising world of Atletico Madrid — Spain’s sudden title favourites. Mind you, please whisper that phrase or Diego Simeone might take you by the shirt front and pin you to the wall. More of that later.
Let’s join all those dots, starting with the 12th man.
On Sunday night, as Simeone’s rather punch-drunk men tried to haul themselves back into their contest with Eibar after going 2-0 down inside 20 minutes before Joao Felix struck back, goalkeeper Jan Oblak began a move by rolling the ball out to his central defender, Jose Gimenez.
The ball rolled towards Gimenez, unbeknownst to him, and Eibar look poised to go 3-1 up at the Wanda Metropolitano. But at that crucial moment the 12th man, or rather 54,000 of them, roared to the rescue.
Just before Gimenez’s position became fatally embarrassing, every man, woman, child and ball-boy in the stadium screamed at him to wake up and pay attention. No parental warning needed here because while there was language which would make anyone blush, I won’t repeat it here.
As soon as the Uruguayan was startled into turning around and gathering the ball, Atleti’s move for Vitolo’s goal that would draw them level at 2-2 began. The newspapers on Monday morning should have read: Assist: Lemar/Crowd. But they didn’t.
Remember the fears that leaving the now demolished Vicente Calderon stadium might be, for Atleti, like Samson getting a haircut? A huge drop in power? Forget it.
The subs? Well Vitolo now has two goals in two blistering second-half performances, each contributing to wins which looked like being a draw and a defeat respectively. Thomas Partey joined the party (do excuse me) with a 90th-minute winner despite having only been on the pitch just over 10 minutes.
Afterwards, Vitolo said: “I’ll keep on fighting in every training session, with every match minute I get to help the team and to try and force the coach into picking me.”
Thomas added: “Every one, starter and sub, feels equally important here. The work the team did from the moment Eibar went 2-0 up was absolutely phenomenal.”
The two of them followed the right actions with the right words. Everyone here sings from the same hymn sheet. Smells like 2013-14, doesn’t it?
Whatever else is going on, Simeone has all his back-up players pawing the ground with energy, resilience and determination rather than sulking. They seem to know that the biggest trophies are always won by an 18-man squad, not 11 men.
While 19-year-old Rodrigo Riquelme didn’t turn the game on Sunday, his introduction as a sub means that Atleti’s coach, unfairly branded as “conservative,” has now brought on seven homegrown kids for their debuts since April.
I don’t think it’s necessary to explain, again, what a dramatic impact Simeone has had on the club, the fanbase, the media, the training ground environment, the squad, the academy or the trophy cabinet (seven in just under eight years). But I’ll bet you didn’t know that not only was Sunday against Eibar the first time his team had conceded twice at home before the 20-minute mark, or that Atleti hadn’t fought back to win from 2-0 down since 2009?
Sunday’s fightback against Jose Luis Mendilibar’s Eibar did just that — calamitously shipping in one smash-and-grab goal, followed by a comedy second to give the impression that Barcelona drawing and the prospect of Real Madrid doing the same later on didn’t matter to them.
But they have this wonderkid, see?
Joao Felix is not only special, he’s durable and oozes winning mentality. After hogging the entire European preseason with his performances, the Portuguese phenom, still just 19, has a goal, an assist and a penalty won through three games for the top-of-the-table and title favourites. His delightful piece of skill (the Spanish have begun to call such tricks “delicatessen” recently) near the halfway line to take a crisp pass, flick it past his marker and set Diego Costa off on a run which would end with Felix side-footing home Atleti’s first to make it 2-1, brought a primeval roar of approval from the gullets of the red-and-white 54,000.
Yet when the Portuguese starlet tired, Simeone had the chutzpah to replace him with match-winner Partey. Normally a right-back, midfield enforcer or even a centre-back, here the Ghanaian was deployed as a second striker … and scored.
I liked the cut of Simeone’s jib postmatch. He said: “I saw that Joao was flagging and I knew that Thomas had the impetus to play off Diego Costa. I wanted speed, I wanted to attack Eibar.”
It brought drama, a third goal, postmatch questions about winning the title and three beautiful points but Simeone remained realistic.
“If you win 3-2 then you’ve committed some errors. But the point is the fight back and winning. We want to win, then win some more then win again and again…” was his payoff, an homage to Luis Aragones, his only challenger as Atleti’s most famous, most loved servant, and the ‘Wise Old Man of Hortaleza’s” historic phrase: “Ganar, y ganar y volver a ganar.“
Atleti are well stocked across their squad, trust their academy products, look fit, fast, renewed with the energy and competition that astute new signings can bring and, up front, they seem to ooze scoring power.
Here’s the rub. It’s not for nothing that they’ve only won the title twice since 1977. Madrid and Barcelona have often claimed La Liga with “moderate” performances where their deep resources are impossible for Atleti to emulate. This time Simeone has the resources, several special players, a throbbingly good home support and his principal rivals are, at best, flat-planing and, likely, regressing.
That leaves us with the fact that if they are to become Spanish champions it will be the first time in nearly half a century that they’ve done so starting as most people’s outright favourites. A burden.
Expect the “one game at a time,” “we aren’t thinking about that” and “if you mention the title one more time” to be growled out from Atleti’s Majadahonda training ground and postmatch news conferences all the way to next May. When, on recent evidence, great things await.