There was something missing when Atlético Madrid finally, unexpectedly won the league again after 18 long years. While the players celebrated the title at the Camp Nou on the final day of the 2013-14 season, the trophy was 600km away, hidden away somewhere in the Liga de Fútbol Profesional (LFP) offices in the capital. It is still there three months later and when it is at last presented to Diego Simeone’s team before their second league game – against Eibar next week – it won’t be the same.
However, Spain’s outstanding goalkeeper will not be there to lift it. Thibaut Courtois, like the full back Filipe Luís, left for Chelsea. Atlético’s top scorer has gone too. So, in fact, has their second top scorer: Diego Costa and David Villa both departed, taking 40 league goals with them. Of the 11 players who started against Barcelona on 17 May, six left, although the Portuguese midfielder Tiago found himself without a team and came back again. Some who lift the trophy, shouldn’t; some who should will no longer be there to do so.
For Atlético fans, what happened next felt depressingly inevitable. They’d got the draw they needed to win the league at the Camp Nou, just as they’d won at the Bernabéu, San Mamés, Mestalla, the Sánchez Pizjuán, San Siro and Stamford Bridge. On the final whistle at the Camp Nou, their 11 players cost under €40m. They’d overcome the odds and the inequality, a budget a fifth the size of their rivals which saw them annually trail Real and Barça by over €400m, and they had buried El Pupas – they were no longer the jinxed ones.
But seven days on, a 92nd minute equaliser cost them the Champions League trophy to a resurgent Real Madrid. An astonishing title win had been overtaken, all the more so in a country where the fanbase and media agenda too is dominated by Real and Barcelona, where those financial differences reflect a social reality. And their reward for having the temerity to take on the big two was the destruction of their team.
It was not just Atlético: for the rest of Spain, there was a sad inevitability about it too. Atlético had been the first club to break the duopoly in a decade. Going back 10 years, the distance between the best of the “rest” and the top of the table had been 24 in 2012-13, then 39, 25, 28, 17, 8 (in a season where Villarreal came second), 5, 13 and 19 points. Perhaps there could be a third way, after all? After the final in Lisbon, Simeone was asked what he was going to do next. “Have a break, watch the World Cup and then prepare to defend the league title we have just won,” he replied pointedly.
That seemed even more unlikely now. The exodus began, led by arguably Atlético’s best two players. Meanwhile, no one doubted that Madrid and Barcelona would invest heavily to ensure that this never happened again. Luis Suárez and James Rodríguez arrived, for upwards of €75m apiece. It was as if someone had tapped Atlético on the shoulder and said: “You’ve had your fun. Now, get back in line.” As if they had said: “Nice shot, David. Now hand over the catapult.”
This week, Simeone insisted that Atlético are competing with Sevilla and Valencia, not Barça and Real. Yet few swallowed it this time. Simeone had said that winning the league was “impossible” last year, remember. This time, some suspect he is merely playing a role that worked well. That early pessimism has gone. Because here’s the thing: Atlético may even have got better.
At €30m Antoine Griezmann became Atlético’s second most expensive player ever after Radamel Falcao when he joined from Real Sociedad. (Falcao had been bought and sold with the help of a third party, bringing his fee to Atlético down in exchange for over half of the player’s registration rights.) Griezmann’s signing was a golpe de efecto: a statement of intent that changed the mood. Giddy fans flocked to the Calderón for his presentation.
Others came too. Mario Mandzukic cost €22m from Bayern Munich. Jan Oblak arrived for €16m, Raúl Jiménez and Guilherme Siqueira cost €10m each, Correa €7.5m, Miguel Ángel Moyà €3.5m and Jesús Gómez €2.5m. Cristian Ansaldi came on loan. Nineteen-year-old Saúl has returned from his loan spell at Rayo Vallecano, where he was superb.
There are still 10 days left, Simeone says there will probably be more movement, and Atlético have already spent almost €100m. So far, that puts them only €20m behind Real. The change is radical. No one in last season’s squad cost over €12m and, indebted to the tax man, their spending had plummeted. Of those signed in the previous three years, only Toby Alderweireld (€5m), Villa (€2m) and Léo Baptistão (€7m) cost anything. Now they are spending again. Simeone demanded it; the Champions league campaign and €85m in sales permitted it.
Atlético are adapting to Mandzukic, the new focal point of their attack. His movement is not the same as Costa’s: that quick ball into his runs either side of the central defenders, from Koke particularly, was central to their gameplan last season but will not function in the same way now. Simeone, though, believes that Mandzukic can facilitate the quick arrival in the area of those in the line behind him, Griezmann in particular.
Elsewhere, the ideas remain similar. Not every player who could have departed did so. Koke chose to stay, while Simeone declared: “I would never sell [Diego] Godín.” They, like Gabi, João Miranda, Arda Turan and Raúl García remain. “The structure of the team is not going to change. Stability comes with maintaining the same ideas: intensity and aggressiveness will continue to be the basis,” Simeone said. “We have a clear idea of how we want to play,” added the captain Gabi.
In pre-season they conceded just one goal. Their competitive debut was at the Bernabéu against Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup on Tuesday night and “competitive” is the word. A word, anyway. It finished 1-1; the second leg is [on Friday at the Calderón. Both sides start their league season on Monday night, Atlético at Rayo and Real at home against Córdoba.
It would be unrealistic to consider Atlético favourites for the title, but then it appeared unrealistic last season and even more realistic in the aftermath of defeat in Lisbon, as the apparent dismantling began. Real Madrid and Barcelona have of course strengthened significantly, with the latter undergoing a major overhaul. The big two will again start the season as favourites and Atlético know that. They admit that. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they continue to play on that. Almost €100m later, it is harder to play the Robin Hood card, though.
“Everyone expects us to fall or to drop our guard but we have proven we’re capable of anything,” Gabi told AS. “We have found ourselves a place between two teams with more resources than us. We have to keep that place. It is hard for us to repeat what happened last season and it is harder for us to win the league than for Madrid or Barça to do so. People will always demand more because of what we have done but we know the monsters we have in front of us.”
“With €95m, we sign eight players. Real Madrid sign two,” Simeone said. “It’s a small difference, isn’t it?” It is. It is also a smaller difference than anyone expected.