When the returning Diego lashed home Atletico Madrid’s fourth goal v Real Sociedad on Sunday evening, it was confirmed: they were top of La Liga for the first time in 18 years.
The significance of reaching the summit, leapfrogging Barcelona and pulling three points clear of them and Real Madrid in the process, was as much proof to themselves that they’re contenders, as it was to everybody else.
Atletico have lingered around the top of the league for the first half of the season, like a bad smell to Real and Barca. The financial bullies of the league hoping Los Rojiblancos will drop points and tail off sooner rather than later. The fact they’re getting stronger must seriously concern Carlo Ancelotti and Gerado Martino.
Atletico’s resurgence this season is largely down to Diego Simeone and his ability to get his team to work for each other, but also emphasis on individual’s talents being utilised. Only one defeat this season, away at Espanyol, the black mark on his record.
Despite the loss of key frontman, Radamel Falcao, in the summer, Simeone recruited smartly with his replacement. Already knowing he had a gem, a very large one at that, in Diego Costa, he used one twelfth of the €60m received for Falcao to buy David Villa. Underused and unwanted at Barcelona, Villa is currently on 11 La Liga goals, in support of Costa’s 20.
Simeone’s choice of midfielders is desirable for any manager; however, it is one of his youngsters who has been the conductor of this orchestra.
Koke, who turned 22 last month, has pulled the strings for his manager in the centre, providing nine assists as well scoring four himself. His confidence on the ball and passing ability is reminiscent of Xavi Hernandez at times.
But where Atletico come into their own is their defence, conceding just 14 goals in 22 games. Miranda and Diego Godin have formed a solid partnership, with captain Gabi sat in front of them. Juanfran on the right and Filipe Luis at left-back have provided a perfect balance to the team with their exceptional work-rate up and down the field.
But the man to make the biggest contribution to that outstanding defensive record is Chelsea loanee goalkeeper, Thibaut Courtois. Unbelievable to think he is only 21, when you see him commanding his defence and using every inch of his 6ft 6in frame.
A save-of-the-season contender away at Real Sociedad in early September, with Atletico hanging on 2-1, showed just how good he really is already.
Atletico Madrid have shown they have the depth within their squad to mount this title charge. They have the firepower aligned with the defensive sturdiness to keep turning out wins with impressive performances to go with it, like Sunday’s over Sociedad.
Now it’s just a question of whether they can handle the pressure of being the first side to stop either Barcelona or Real Madrid winning La Liga since Rafa Benitez’s Valencia, and the hopes of everybody who cheers the underdog.
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