Punching above weight

Punching above weight

Considered the underdogs, Atletico have emerged as a major force this season

Punching above weight

The brew is fomenting nicely, intriguingly, evenly. The four teams that entered Friday’s semifinal draw of the Champions League cut right across the divide of wealth and playing style.

There were two blue-collar teams in the pot, Atletico Madrid and Chelsea. And there are two attacking but vulnerable sides, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. Incidentally in Friday’s draw, reigning champions Bayern Munich were pitted against nine-times winners Real Madrid while Atletico were left to face Chelsea.

If there is one outsider to what is becoming a fixed European elite in the final stages of the Champions League, it surely is Atletico. Yet we shouldn’t be surprised. This team from “the other side” of Madrid has a history of rearing itself up against the aristocrats across the city and at rare times in its history banging on the door and demanding to be let in on the prizes.

It is 40 years since the red and white side of Madrid has reached the last four of European competition. But the way that Atletico snuffed out Barcelona on Wednesday, and has proved itself the better team than Real when they met in La Liga this season, can in no way be considered fortunate.

“Win, win, and win again!” read a huge mosaic in the stands when Atleti and Barca emerged at Vicente Calderon stadium on Wednesday night.

It was a statement of intent. It was a saying favored for many years by Luis Aragones, the foremost goal scorer and coach in Atletico’s history. Aragones died in February, but his people, the 50,000 Atleti followers, invoked his memory, his work ethic, with that message.

Of course, an atmosphere should not have blown away Barcelona. These Barca players have been everywhere, done everything in the sport, and set the standards for world football over the past decade.

You would never expect Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta to cower in any setting, much less one in which their Champions League season depended upon it. Yet they were second best this time. They were ghosts in the cauldron, pun intended, that is Atleti’s domain. No matter how hard they, and their new Brazilian, Neymar, tried, the home side tried harder.

This is no accident. Aragones imbued Atletico, and the Spanish national squad, too, with a work ethic that squeezed the virtue out of opponents, broke their will and broke down any areas of supremacy that might have been presumed.

It is no coincidence that Diego Simeone, the current coach of Atletico, first arrived at the Calderon as a player under Aragones in 1994. They soon parted, because that was Aragones’s way: He came, he fired up the atmosphere, heburned out, and he came again and again to his spiritual home in Madrid.

Simeone, an Argentine, has two things in common with the old coach. He is a winner and a ferocious worker. Simeone played in the midfield of the last Atleti team to win La Liga, and he is back now cajoling, demanding, calling for more effort, and more, more, more.
You cannot miss him on the sideline. He dresses, always, in black from collar to shoes.

A silver crucifix dangles from his trim waistcoat, or rather it dances as he leaps up on the sideline. He plays the crowd as well as the players, urging them to shout louder and longer than any opposing team wants to hear. And they respond. The people, Simeone recently said, are magnificent. They cannot score a goal, but they can give the team energy.

Atletico came out like a human whirlwind on Wednesday. The home players pinned Barca back on its heels. Koke, born and raised to be an Atleti player, struck a goal in the fifth minute that was a dagger in the heart of the Catalans’ avowed intent to strike first against the home side. But that Koke goal, a stab with the inside of his foot from close range, was to be the winner thoroughly deserved. Four times, Atletico and Barcelona had previously met this season. Four times the game, home and away, had finished all square.

Wednesday had to be decisive, and Atleti -- players, coach and crowd -- wanted it more.
That solitary goal came amid an opening salvo that lasted 20 minutes, during which Adrian Lopez struck the frame of the goal once, and David Villa, a former Barca player, hit the woodwork twice.

And when Barcelona did break out, when the famous feet of one of the best teams the world has seen searched for their rhythm and passing control, at least two home players closed down the space, harassed and dogged them.

It was driven, intense, and the epitome of organised obstinacy. Obviously, Simeone trains his players for this, but where they find the energy and the remorseless willpower is -- the coach says -- inside the players themselves. If you doubt their ability to keep running this dream for eight more games, you cannot have watched its season. “This team has no ceiling,” Koke wrote on the club’s Twitter feed late Wednesday. “We’re going to keep our focus dreaming. We are going to maintain our match-by-match philosophy.”

The players have no choice. If they flag, Simeone will drop them. Whoever they are, they are replaceable. Wednesday’s victory came without Diego Costa, the team’s top scorer, and without Arda Turan, the crafty Turkish creator. They were injured, and up stepped reserves.

In a club fighting debt, and often forced to sell exciting talents, Atleti’s answer is work and more work, until the opponents wilt.

“The atmosphere in the stands was decisive,” Simeone said one more time on Wednesday. “It may not have influenced Barcelona’s players, but it certainly influenced ours.”

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox

Check out all newsletters

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox