It was fantastic to hear Roy Keane telling Gary Neville the other day his disgust at coming into work as a manager one Monday morning to discover that a member of his coaching staff hadn’t bothered to watch Real Madrid vs. Barcelona the night before. Looking back, Keane reckons he should have sacked the guy on the spot for not having sufficient taste, common sense and football appetite to make a special date with an unmissable LaLiga product. I couldn’t agree more.
This weekend — in fact, ever since this season started — Atletico Madrid were the “must-see” appointment. Since commencing the long battle to retain their title, matches involving Spain’s champions have given us eight goals (some of them exquisite), four red cards, 20 yellow cards, a brawl in the tunnel, a penalty, one of the most ridiculous own goals you’ll ever witness, a nasty bout of eye-gouging, 37 shots on target, the emergence of a Tom Brady-esque passer and a brand of football that, finally, blends the catch-me-if-you-can nature of the Premier League with the trademark smarter, more technical quality of LaLiga.
One-hundred-and-eighty minutes of “blink and you’ve missed another explosive moment” football. And that’s only the actual 2021-22 season — during the summer build-up, Atleti started their own “Battle of Rotterdam,” too!
Los Rojiblancos lost 2-1 to Feyenoord in De Kuip, during which an originally minor tangle between Yannick Carrasco and full-back Tyrell Malacia, ended with the Belgian swinging punches, Feyenoord midfielder Orkun Kokcu bleeding from his cheek and neck, plus a full brawl while Carrasco and Kokcu were (only just) held apart by Marcos Llorente and Jan Oblak.
Carrasco refused to accept his red card until Diego Simeone sprinted onto the pitch to furiously insist the lanky midfielder take his medicine. By the end, following Feyenoord’s “offside” winner in time added on to added time, Simeone also lost his temper and shoved his opposite number, Arne Slot.
“If there hadn’t been anyone else around, there might have been a big problem,” grumbled the Feyenoord coach afterwards. “I wouldn’t like to go one-on-one against that guy!”
But Slot added something telling, which seemed to predict the all-for-one-and-one-for-all attitude, bristle and gristle Atletico have injected into all three competitive matches so far. “Things got a bit out of hand, but I told my players afterwards that we could learn a bit from Atleti. They can’t stand the idea of losing even in a preseason training game when they think the winner was offside!”
One way to try and comprehend Atleti’s no-holds-barred start to the season is to work out whether you can remember the “Shot Heard Round the World,” when New York Giants outfielder Bobby Thomson smashed a game-winning home run in the bottom of the ninth inning to win the National League pennant for the Giants having been down 14 games earlier in the season. Alternatively, do you remember witnessing the first NBA All-Star basketball game in the Boston Garden, or the premiere of multi-Oscar winner “An American in Paris” starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron?
I’d say almost certainly not. That’s because all those events pertain to 1951, when Nat King Cole released “Unforgettable” and Bugs Bunny voice artist Mel Blanc had a novelty hit as Tweety with “I Tawt I Taw A Puddy Tat.” That was also the last year when Atletico Madrid won back-to-back La Liga titles — seven long decades ago.
Take a sliver of Atleti’s opening three games in la Liga, rush the sample to a lab and ask top scientists to analyse what they find. The test results will be labelled “Danger: raw, naked ambition!” Atleti are showing a ruthless hunger to repeat.
When Atleti last conquered Spain, in 2014, they fell away alarmingly the following season. Fewer goals scored, more conceded, a calamitous 12 points fewer then when they were champions — and 16 points behind 2015 champions, Barcelona.
There’s a clear and steely determination not to repeat that embarrassment, and Celta Vigo caught a whiff of the cordite on week one. Atleti created two of the best, most clinical, most thrilling goals of Simeone’s 10-year reign — absolute screamers — and they won 2-1 in Vigo. But their fitness guru, Oscar “The Professor” Ortega was red-carded for petulant complaining, and another brawl erupted when Luis Suarez was clipped down in added time.
Mario Hermoso appointed himself “The Equaliser” and was red-carded for fulfilling his vendetta with Celta captain Hugo Mallo. Oh, and talking of equalisers, Atleti produced one for your comedy scrapbook at the weekend against Villarreal.
Really, the defending champions should have been ahead by a basketball score. They’d pummelled Spain’s Europa League winners: Simeone’s team hit 23 shots and launched in 15 corners while Villarreal had two shots, both of which went in! At any rate, once the game reached added time, Saul launched a real “Hail Mary” ball forward, and Aissa Mandi assumed his keeper, Geronimo Rulli, had stayed in his goal to collect his cushioned header, only to find Rulli had trotted off to his left thinking the ball would run directly through to him. Instead, it bounced past Rulli and nestled in the net.
Red faces for the men in yellow shirts, red and white glee for Atleti. Red mist for Villarreal coach Unai Emery, too, as he’d been on the cusp of ending a 15-game win-less run when facing Simeone as an opponent.
“I spent half an hour kicking the wall in the dressing room throwing water bottles around and cursing everyone,” Emery admitted. And even that was only once the tunnel brawl had calmed down.
Referee Soto Grado described it dispassionately in his report: “After the final whistle in the tunnel, there was a melee between all the coaches and players of both teams. Unai Emery’s assistant, Imanol Idiakez, aggressively got in the face of a home team director and had to be held back by his own colleagues. Then [Atleti team delegate] Pedro Tomas Renones punched the mouth of one of Villarreal’s coaching staff.”
Don’t you love the smell of testosterone in the (very early) morning? It genuinely was Monday morning by then — another of Spain’s idiosyncrasies where, because of the broiling heat, matches that kick off at 10 p.m. local time often have their denouements the following day after the clock has passed midnight.
All in all, Atleti have become the “must-have” ticket and the Wanda Metropolitano stadium was bouncing on Sunday night, with 27,000 fans (due to pandemic restrictions) doing a passable imitation of a 60,000-strong capacity crowd.
Atleti have produced some stunning football this season. Angel Correa can’t stop scoring or creating goal chances, Thomas Lemar is bottled lightning in midfield, Koke‘s stats are peerless in the engine room. I could go on. At the heart of it is the Man in Black, the Johnny Cash impersonator himself, Diego Simeone.
This time last year, I tipped Atleti to win the title and they brought home the bacon. That wasn’t a prediction without trepidation because, in recent years, Simeone had let his focus drift from “win at all costs” to “compete for the Champions League money at any cost.” He suffered from the thing that doomed Arsenal in the latter years of Arsene Wenger’s tenure: the idea that ensuring top-four finishes and trawling for UEFA’s cash was the route to contentment, and that stable club finances and bigger contracts and were more vital than competing, flat out, to lift the title. But Simeone patently loves the state of his squad: the talents, the mentality, their hunger.
He was unusually loquacious this summer about how absolutely essential it was to add Rodrigo De Paul to his squad, and the Argentine international then debuted at home versus Elche only to produce two passes of which Tom Brady would have been proud. It’s clear De Paul can be the unlocker of defences this season.
More than that, Simeone sees, with clear, hungry, wolverine eyes, how things are at Barcelona and Madrid. Both rivals are asset-stripped, neither fully happy with their transfer market business. Both vulnerable.
Atleti’s Champions League group is sheer madness, too: Combined, the four teams (Liverpool, Porto, AC Milan and Los Rojiblancos) have made 22 appearances in the finals of this competition alone. Atleti are the only ones not to have won it. Yet.
If they get through that lot, then who knows? But domestic victory, and a first title-double since Harry Truman (USA), Sir Winston Churchill (UK), Joseph Stalin (USSR) and General Franco (Spain) held power simultaneously is on the cards.
Expect a whole host of all-or-nothing, no-holds-barred football nights from Atleti all season long.
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