Saturday May 17 2014

La Liga a bigger deal for Atletico than winning Champions League

Atletico midfielder Turan, hugely popular at the Vicente Calderon,

Atletico midfielder Turan, hugely popular at the Vicente Calderon, has been one of their outstanding players of the season. Photo by AFP 


I sounded like one of those tired, overused truisms that bounce off the eardrums without resonating with the grey matter, until Diego Simeone made us sit up and pay due attention to it again.

As they chased after glory on multiple fronts, with the matches coming thicker and faster, each one bigger than the last and, for the many inevitably aroused, the enticement to run over the fixture list and fast-forward to the finish line growing by the day, Simeone insisted that the only one that mattered was the next.

By February it had dawned that this was no escapist regurgitation of cliché, Simoene was dead serious about taking care of immediate business first and letting future business take care of itself.
With a squad much smaller than those of his domestic and continental rivals (quality-wise that is), on any given weekend Simeone did not care if the next midweek was to usher in a Milan, Barcelona or Chelsea (Atletico’s high profile victims on the way to the Champions League final). Without caring much for rest and fresh legs, he would put out his strongest eleven against a Celta Vigo, Rayo Vallecano or Almeria.

That eleven would win, and then return to fell a European giant three days on because that then would become the match that mattered. Famously, while Jose Mourinho was so furious with Premier League scheduling ahead of Chelsea’s second leg Champions League semifinal that he fielded a ‘weakened’ side against Liverpool in England, Atletico played their best side on the same day in Spain and then proceeded to travel to Stamford Bridge, out-compete and outclass the better rested Blues.

Of course we have since discovered that, while they are not of the reputation of the substitutes at Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich or Man City, Atletico’s back-up players are largely as good as their starters; Arda Turan might be the star man in midfield but in his absence Diego Ribas will cause similar ripples, and if the high profile David Villa does not partner Diego Costa upfront, a Raul Garcia or Adrian Lopez will step in to the same effect …
Still though the workload was getting too heavy for the starters (even with the able subs, key men like Thibaut Courtios, Miranda, Diego Godin, skipper Gabi, Koke and Costa barely got a breather) and yet there was no sign of letting up.

And yet, long after I had personally given up on seeing them crack, the fatigue sets in and they go two weekends without a La Liga win, inviting Barcelona back into a race they had looked like winning comfortably.

Camp Nou ‘final’
As it turns out now, more than at any other time in the season, Simeone needs to return to telling his players and the world that the next game is the only one that matters, and sound pretty convincing while it. Ultimately, winning the La Liga title is going to be more important in the bigger picture than winning the Champions League, and there cannot be any thoughts wandering towards the other final in Lisbon next Saturday. Tonight is the night.

However big the Champions League might be, it remains a Cup competition that can be won by putting together a good run of form over a few games and riding your luck too; just ask Dortmund about the years after 1997, or Liverpool about the aftermath of that night in Istanbul.

Coming top in the league after nine months of back-and-forth is a better measure of longer-term improvement, earning of respect and all else, and for Atletico finishing ahead of Barca and Real will do better to ensure they can command more television deals and sponsorships, keep their best players and attract more, create a solid foundation for sustainable success etc.

With that in mind, they must produce an even better collective performance at the Camp Nou tonight than they have in frustrating Barca in the last five meetings. Get in Xavi’s face and stop him controlling the game; shadown Lionel Messi and Iniesta and knock them out of their rhythm again and again; pin back Alves and Alba back, and also exploit the spaces those full backs leave behind for the counter-attack; aggressively go at Barca’s vulnerability from set pieces; score first.

Like I said in my predictions column yesterday, my gut feeling tells me Messi is going to orchestrate one of football’s greatest heists and Barca will be champions. But I have never so desperately wanted to be wrong.