Barcelona were expected to conquer all before them – but if there was one team who could stop them, it was Atlético Madrid.
It was a case of the best attack in Europe against the best defence. Beauty versus the beast. Barcelona are lauded for their magical football and superstars while Atlético are masters at the dark arts, the ugly side of the game. In the end, the beast defeated beauty.
We all love football being played in the right way with great players and attacking football but this Atlético side has to be admired for a number of reasons. Constantly punching above their weight to challenge Spain’s big two, Diego Simeone gets the most out of his players. While Barcelona and Real Madrid are known for possessing players of individual brilliance, Atlético Madrid are a real collective unit.
They are like a well oiled machine in the way they know when to tackle, when to drop deep, when to apply pressure and when to foul. Are they cynical? Yes. However, they are masters at doing the right things at the right time. It is instilled throughout the whole team by Simeone.
A symbol of this is the best central defender in world football, Diego Godin. Some people may not enjoy it but it gives Atlético the best chance of being successful. They could ill afford to go toe to toe with Barcelona.
Atlético’s style of play sparked off an entertaining debate on RTE between Liam Brady and Eamon Dunphy. Brady was clearly not impressed with the cynical nature of Atlético’s play:
“I would rather have Barcelona (advancing to the next round) ten out of ten, It is a sad night because they (Atlético) are a cynical team. You [Dunphy] are celebrating but there is nothing to celebrate.”
Dunphy argued on the side of Atletico:
“They aren’t cynical. They are hard working. They are aggressive. There is a difference between cynicism and aggression in my view.”
There is no doubt that there is an element of cynicism to Atlético’s style of play but one has to see Brady’s criticism as over the top. While Dunphy talks an awful lot of nonsense for the majority of the time, he rightly praises Atlético for their extraordinary work rate and wonderful aggression on the pitch. These two factors, coupled in with a pinch of cynicism, makes them a nightmare to play against. The ingredients for their success.
Speaking of cynicism, are Barcelona not cynical in a way? The way the players constantly surround the referee is borderline embarrassing and the over exaggeration when they have been fouled is an ugly side that is now part of the game. It is a valid argument despite all their footballing genius.
Barcelona have hit a rock in recent weeks with losses in El Clásico, against Real Sociedad at the weekend and now bowing out of the Champions League. Their lead in La Liga has been cut to three points. Their recent slump has left many fans scratching their heads who were certain Barcelona were unstoppable.
The truth is Barcelona have picked up a bad habit of being overly reliant on their brilliant front three to win them games at will. It is a dictatorship of talent which makes it easier to play but also easier to play against. The front three have not been as prolific thus Barcelona are in a rut.
Barcelona’s small squad does not help either. Luis Enrique rarely changes his line up and it is finally taking its toll as they are beginning to look like a tired team. This Barcelona team is still an excellent side when in full force but Pep Guardiola’s Barça team was simply better in an all round sense. They were a collective unit who had a real appetite in possession and without possession as well as their talent. The current Barça side don’t seem to be as strong collectively.
Guardiola is a fantastic manager and his ability to marry talent with a team ethic can be underestimated. This is also why Simeone is such a great coach. Let’s not forget that Atlético have some quality players. Griezmann scored the two goals to send them through and he is now among the worlds best players. The likes of Koke, Saúl Ñíguez and Felipe Luis are also blessed with talent.
We are down to the last four and it looks fascinating. For Bayern, Real and City – there is no doubt that Atletico are the team they will fear the most. The 2014 final ended in heartbreak, but this time Simeone and his beast can finally claim the holy grail.