Friday, May 6, 2016

Atletico seek the start of a new age in Milan

ANOTHER ALL-MADRID AFFAIR GIVES ATLETICO MADRID ANOTHER CHANCE TO MOVE OUT OF THE SHADOWS

Has the prospect of a Champions League Final of Real Madrid v Atletico Madrid set the football world alight?

Not exactly. Why is that?

Atletico seek the start of a new age in Milan.


Well, despite a city derby being something to relish on paper (2014's was the first in the history of the European Cup) the pair's rendezvous in Lisbon then proved to be such a long, drawn-out affair it has not left the continent chomping at the bit for another round.

Atletico were leading in injury time that sweaty night before Real's last-gasp equalizer led to a white goal rush, but had they seen out the clock their victory would have been as dull as many a 1-0 in the history of the competition.

Derbies are usually hectic affairs but the huge stakes of the Champions League trophy means the final will probably be a cagey affair once more.

Atletico have never won the top prize so will not be going for broke while Real have too much experience to gamble. One point separates them in the league; they are too close to separate.

There is also the fact Spanish football is so dominant – four of the last seven Champions League finals and seven of the last twelve Europa League finals have been won by La Liga clubs, while three out of the four finalists in this season's competitions are Spanish, that another all Spanish final has no novelty factor.

If Manchester City had not been so overawed by the Bernabeu on Wednesday, then their first visit to the final tie would have engendered much expectation, even if they probably would have capitulated through a lack of experience on the night.

Wolfsburg was the wildest of wildcard entries in the last eight but also froze like a deer in the Real Madrid headlights, despite holding a 2-0 first-leg lead. In that context, City's loss does not look so bad.

Paris Saint Germain were the most exciting presence in the knock-out stages, and a win for them would have come as a welcome reassurance that French club football can compete again for the top prizes and that there exists another European centre of excellence. But it was not to be.

Based on the semi-finals, Bayern Munich were the best side still in the competition but rotten luck conspired against them in their away goals loss to Atletico and Pep Guardiola's German chapter concluded without Champions League success.

Real are little to get excited about for neutrals because they are super-rich and super familiar, reinforcing their ranks each year or two with mutli-million dollar galacticos.

Only the deepest pockets can compete with their empire, which has turned the Champions League into a footballing arms race of financial frippery (the sport is a notorious bonfire of serious investments), where the most profligate spenders are currently the Arabs and the Chinese, with some Americans breathing down their necks.

Real have an extraordinary following across Spain and profit from the stentorian support of the nation's biggest dailies AS and Marca as well as the television stations, banks and even the Royal Family.

So the Whites are as establishment as it gets and seeing them in the final is a regular occurrence.

And then there is the absence of Barcelona.

The all-conquering behemoth surprisingly fell at the semi-final stage of the Champions League this season but were in the midst of a poor run and came up against a dogged and determined Atletico who deserved to advance 3-2 on aggregate.

The age of tiki-taka may be in the past but the South American forward trident had been enough last season to propel Barça to a clean sweep of trophies.

One cannot complain if this season they failed to dazzle in Europe again, yet the lack of Lionel Messi, Neymar, Luis Suarez and the familiar blaugrana colours still seems a little disappointing to the neutral.

So forgive the general public if they do not hurry home for kick-off in the final.

Barça's conquerors Atletico are in their second Champions League final in three years and won La Liga two seasons ago, but still fail to enjoy that sexy tag Barça and Real Madrid enjoy.

Perhaps this season they will be taken seriously as one of the very best, but they need to win one of La Liga or the Champions League, ideally the latter.

But even were they to win the final in Milan, it would probably be greeted in the wider football world as a blip, the result of the usual big boys having an off-year, much like the triumphs of Porto, PSV or Steaua Bucharest were.

Football supporters enjoy the novelty of a surprise winner but when big clubs are on the wane also yearn for normal service to be resumed, a curious duality which is at odds with individual sports like golf or road cycling, where the winner is quite often an unexpected individual.

Broadcaster Danny Baker, a famous fan of lowly Millwall, put it succinctly,
"I like big clubs to remain big and little clubs to remain little."

The status quo can change of course but only over time until repeated dominance evolves into a sense of permanence. Barcelona have that permanence like Real, but Atletico do not. Until they do, they must suffer their reputation like an albatross.

So it is that Atletico for now have the cruel tag of being 'not quite Real', stuck fast in the shadow of their big city rivals.

Visit any souvenir shop in the Spanish capital or at Barajas airport and Atletico gifts are few and far between and far less ubiquitous than Real and Barcelona's. This is a pity.

Only a sustained period of success can improve their image as being a good but not amazing team. A number of cities' second clubs do suffer the same plight to be fair – ask Everton, Torino and Manchester City for instance.

City now of course are challenging United for dominance of England's second city in a prolonged manner, much like Internazionale and Milan squabble fairly equally over being the pride of Milano. But it has taken tens of millions of pounds of Arab investment, a new stadium and vast training complex and sustained investment in top-drawer coaches and players for City to reach that level.

Much has been made of the 20% Chinese investment in Atleti but the team's current success is largely because it has stuck with a popular coach in Diego Simeone and has not succumbed to Real Madrid levels of shopaholic addiction.

The Argentine has been at the helm since replacing Quique Sanchez Flores in 2011 and has spurned advances from Chelsea and others to take his time to build a club with his philosophy.

The evidence of a well-drilled defence and hard-working midfield this campaign was all too evident, a band of brothers who are all pulling in the same direction and refuse to be beaten, even by Barcelona and Bayern Munich.

Again, Atletico deserve more credit than they are being given.

They are popularly regarded not to possess the array of stars on show at the Bernabeu, hence their less than global appeal. But the procession of top forwards in the colchonero (bedspread – red and white stripes) over the past few seasons would appear to suggest otherwise:

Diego Forlan, Fernando Torres, Falcao, David Villa, Sergio Aguero, Diego Costa and now Antoine Griezmann have all done their duty up front for the allegedly second-best team of Madrid.

Their striker scouting at the very least merits some applause.

The fan experience too is more agreeable as Atleti do not have the institutionalised grandeur or monarchical arrogance of Real.

One can only take the underdog motif so far however, as Atletico are not Rayo Vallecano, the capital's other top-flight team whose stadium holds less than 15,000.

They have enjoyed moderate success over the years, unlike Man City or Torino, whose golden age was back in the 1940s.

Had the insane Jesus Gil not been in charge for so long and sacked so many managers, they probably would enjoyed more success on the back of the sustained stability Simeone is showing.

Los Colchoneros have won ten Copas del Rey and ten La Liga titles, their best spell being four league titles between 1970 and 1977, while they have also won the Europa League twice this decade.

Yet Champions League success still eludes them. As with Sevilla, who have done all but rename the Europa League in their honour in recent years, only victories in the biggest cup of them all will cement their reputation as a great club.

Nevertheless there is much to admire about Atleti.

Vicente Calderon, Madrid, Spain


A visit to the 55,000 seat Vicente Calderon, a messily-built stadium of contrasting stands, like English stadia used to be, is far and away more enjoyable than buying a ticket to the 81,000 Santiago Bernabeu, which slumbers under the heavy expectation of a stolid establishment, and is comparatively lifeless.

Alas, Atleti have fallen into the familiar trap of wanting a financially more attractive new ground far from their barrio and later this year should complete the long-delayed move to La Peineta, with an increased capacity of 73,000.

Like so many English teams, they will probably struggle to adapt quickly to their new surrounding and the fans will rue the change of scenery, however cleaner and more comfortable the facilities are. And what else is there to like about Atletico? The kit of course, a wonderfully over colourful number worthy of Subbuteo.

The elements are all there for Atletico to be treated as seriously as Barcelona and Real and for a global following to ensue.

That they have not achieved that status remains a curious fact. When they might be thought of in the same breath remains uncertain, but later this month they can start changing all that.

These things take time and patience is a virtue, whatever billionaire owners feel.

But winning the Champions League in Milan on the 28th of May cannot hurt.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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