Atlético's style has been a problem for Barça in the past. 'El Cholo' Simeone hopes to give a hard time to the Blaugranas
During the Champion's League quarter-finals draw, Barça avoided Guardiola's Bayern, but they have got to face a very rough opposition: Atlético Madrid. For the past few years, the 'Colchoneros' have been very tough opponents to beat for the Blaugranas, and there are not that many reasons why it should be different this years. This is not 2014 anymore, but many traits of Simeone's team have remained the same, despite a change of players, and a change of dimension from the whole club. Barça are the clear favourite, but they know it will take more than figures and statistics to overcome a tenacious, vigourous and determined team like Atlético. Here is a little reminder of why Luis Enrique is probably not smiling like he was during the press conference.
Atlético: between fighting spirit and methodical patience
There is an obvious reason for which Diego Simeone has been courted by many great clubs in Europe since he joined Atlético as the head coach in December 2011. Beyond the fact his team won La Liga in 2014, with a Champion's League final lost in the extra-time to Real Madrid (1-1, 1-4 a.e.t), 'El Cholo' has imposed a style, a unique way of seeing football that not everyone shares, but everyone reckons. He managed to make of an irregular, intermittent Atlético Madrid a real cold and potent machinery. With two European titles (Europa League 2011/12, UEFA Super Cup 2012/13) and three national trophies (Copa del Rey 2012/13, La Liga 2013/14 and Spanish Super Cup 2014/15), the Argentinian coach put Atlético among the Big 3 in Spain, alongside Real Madrid and FC Barcelona. An authentic performance given the difference of budget between the two mastodonts and Atlético.
The Colchoneros obtained these results thanks to a very rigourous and methodical tactic Diego Simeone has been working on for years, since his first experience as a coach in the Argentinian club of Racing (2005/06). He accumulated experience, in Estudiantes, River Plate, San Lorenzo and Catania (Italy) before to come back to Racing, and finally settle in Europe in Madrid. He also used his experience as a player, hard on the man and motivated by a fierce will to never give up. He succeeded in passing this behaviour to his players, who live and die on the pitch for their coach. A very-well structured defence, an intelligent pressure and quick movements in attack with few touches, that's the secret recipe of Simeone to overcome rivals such as Chelsea, Real Madrid, Barça or AC Milan. A dangerous cocktail Barça already tasted bitterly a couple of years ago...
2013-14: the sour precedent
Two years ago, Simeone was still an interesting prospect of a coach, willing to test his magic against big guns Real Madrid (led by Ancelotti) and Barça (led by Tata Martino). Some might say it was opportunistic to reach the Champion's League final and win the title in a year during which both the Blaugranas and the Merengues weren't at their best. But it is also the great talent of Diego Simeone. He's capable of lighting a fire and putting it out almost in a snap of the fingers. That is exactly what he did, and what he got his players to do during the Champion's League quarter-finals of the 2013/14 season. After overcoming AC Milan (0-1, 4-1), Atlético have to face Barça, who quietly disposed of Manchester City in the previous round (0-2, 2-1). Not many think 'El Cholo' is capable of beating the Catalan side, given his supposedly 'poor' style, extremely defensive, which led to hazardous comparisons to José Mourinho.
It is true that the physical component is essential to Simeone's success, as well as an aggressiveness that makes it almost unbreathable for the opponent. Very uncomfortable with the proceedings of both games, Barça was never able to play their game of tiki-taka and fluid movements and quick passing, facing such a tough barrier, virtually impossible to pass. Let alone the fact Diego chose the perfect time in the first leg to administrate a screamer from 30 yards to the poor Pinto (Valdès was missing, injured), and despite Neymar's equaliser, Atlético were already marching on to the semi-finals. The second leg was of the same intensity, with Barça hardly finding space to get into Atlético's box, and the Colchoneros' great organisation making a difference, with a goal from Koke after only 5 minutes of madness in Vicente Calderón, where Atlético was on fire. They showed another facet of theirs, touching the ball with skill and delicacy to put danger on Barça's goal. The achievement was tremendous, massive for Simeone and his men. And it wasn't over, since Atlético beat Chelsea in the semi-finals to reach the final against neighbours Real Madrid.
In two years, the team has changed a lot. Arda Turan joined the opposition, Diego Costa joined Chelsea as well as Thibaut Courtois. Three masterpieces of Simeone's system, numerically replaced with Griezmann, Jan Oblak, and virtually no one as for the midfield. Yet, this season the Colchoneros are doing once again a great job, 2nd in La Liga in front of Real Madrid and in the Champion's League quarter-finals for the third consecutive time. Barça are favourite once again, even by a larger margin this time. But Atlético are never as strong as when they're the underdogs, having everything to prove and nothing to lose. Beware, Barça...