Football Sport

Against the grain in Spain

Written by Ben Blaschke

There are usually three things you can count on in Spain – death, taxes and that either Real Madrid or Barcelona will win La Liga. In the 82-year history of Spanish football’s Primera Division, the two giants have won 54 titles between them and apart from the brief rise of Valencia a decade ago, who won two titles in three years, their dominance has rarely been challenged.

But something remarkable has happened this year, with Real Madrid’s cross-town rivals Atletico not only mounting a shock title challenge but also threatening to provide a serious shake-up to Spain’s balance of power. With two games remaining this season, Atletico sit three points clear of Barcelona and five ahead of Real, who have a game in hand, at the top of the league which means that although all three can still win it. However, destiny sits very much in Atletico’s hands.

The most likely scenario is that the season will come down to a final round blockbuster between the challengers and Barcelona with the winner holding the trophy aloft. Should both sides win their respective games next week, Barca can potentially snatch the title with a win over Atletico thanks to their superior goal difference, however we should note that in their three meetings this season they have played out two draws with Atletico winning the other.

Atletico’s impressive season has drawn comparisons with Liverpool’s shock title bid in England, where they have gone toe to toe with big spending Manchester City and Chelsea, but in fact the Spanish side’s performance in 2013/14 has been far more impressive. Why? Because it has extended well beyond La Liga. Not only have they surprised Barcelona and Real domestically, they have performed a similar feat in the Champions League where they will contest this month’s final against, ironically, Real Madrid. Proving their amazing year has been no fluke, Atletico dispatched Italian giants AC Milan in the Round of 16, Barcelona in the quarter-finals and Chelsea in the semis. Incredibly, a side that no one had picked for either at the start of the season could be just a matter of weeks away from being crowned both champions of Spain and champions of Europe.

Much of the credit for Atletico’s rise must go to their manager Diego Simeone – the former Argentinian midfielder who also happened to play for the club when they last won the Spanish league in 1995-96. When he was appointed in December 2011, the club had gone through 16 coaches in 15 years and sat 10th on the La Liga table. By the end of the year they sat fifth and had won the Europa League. The following season they won the Copa del Rey and qualified for the Champions League by finishing third in the league behind Barca and Real; and of course now their rise is almost complete with the league and Champions League titles beckoning.

Diego Simeone

Diego Simeone

That would surely go down as one of the greatest coaching feats of all time.