In both senses. Although with the most obvious one, we’re just guessing and getting distracted. The Ménage à trois that this blog is alluding to is of course taking place in the Spanish La Liga where Diego Simeone decided that Real Madrid and Barcelona need to know what it feels like to be challenged from outside and recieve a good kicking (literally!) anytime they face Aleti. It is turning out to be a thrilling title race.
Over the past five seasons or so, La Liga has become really boring with Barcelona and Real Madrid competing for bragging rights (read La Liga title) whereas the real race for the rest was who would qualify for the Champions League. Some of the previous seasons have seen the third placed team trail the runners-up by margins such as 24 and 30 points. In this period, Atletico Madrid attempted to own several undesired titles. They were labled chokers, kings of comic errors, slapstick defenders and most importantly a team who would simply roll over for their arch rivals, Real Madrid.
In the 2011-12 season, Aleti appointed former player Diego Simeone as their manager midway through what looked to be a disastrous season. Gregorio Manzano had overseen 8 losses before half the season was done. Simeone steadied the ship and Atletico saw a good run of form which saw them lose only four games although they did get roller over by both Madrid and Barcelona. Simeone won the Europa League in his first season thrasing Athletic Bilbao 3-0 in the final.
Simeone made Atletico play at a different intensity level from the off and the rewards were much richer over the course of the last season. With an entire preseason and a transfer window under their belt, Simeone changed the entire style of play. Atletico were incisive and quick in possession apart fron being brilliant passers of the ball (Spanish,see). But the true genius was in the way they pressed the opposition when they were not in possession. Teams were forced and harried, kicked, shoved, scared and tormented into ceding possession by a pack of feral players who gave it their all from the 1st to the last minute. It helped greatly that Falcao chose this to be the year where he announced himself to the world and Aleti profited greatly. They thrashed Chelsea 4-1 in the UEFA SuperCup and went on to finish third eventually running out of steam and not possessing the belief that they could challenge the top two yet. They did however beat Real Madrid at the Bernebeau in the Copa del Rey to announce their intent.
Fast forward to this season and Atletico currently sit second. They are equal on points with Real Madrid having played a game more and one ahead of Barcelona (who have played the same number of games as Aleti). Later this month, Real and Barca play each other. Atletico play Barcelona on the final day of the season in Barcelona. All teams have similar run-ins with some tricky games both home and away. All three have been generally brilliant and have blown teams away with their unique brands of football.
But at the moment, Real Madrid have the momentum. Real have played nine league games this year and have won seven and drawn two of those. They recently thumped Schalke 6-1 in Germany in the Champions League and have also won 6 Copa del Rey fixtures this calendar year. In fact, they are unbeaten in all competitions since October 26, 2013 when they lost to Barcelona at the Camp Nou. They have a fearsome frontline in Benzema, Ronaldo and Bale with Angel di Maria playing most matches unless Madrid play 4-3-3. They have Modric, Alonso and Illaramendi in midfield. Isco and Jese Rodriguez operate off the bench. They have a rejuvenated Pepe and Sergio Ramos at centre back and in Raphael Varane, they have the best young central defender in the world. Iker Casillas is currently being kept on the bench by a very good and very in-form Diego Lopez. This Madrid side, managed by Carlo Ancelloti are terrifyingly good and rarely look like they step out of third gear. Benzema has benefitted from having no competition. Last year, both Higuain and him struggled since they could not play as often as either wanted. This season, Benzema has revelled in the role of the main striker scoring at will. Ronaldo and Bale play on either side and if you need analysis on how that works, we simply direct you to any video of Bale or Ronaldo running at someone in full tilt. It is mesmerizing.
Atletico have benefitted from Falcao’s departure for tax-friendly Monaco since it has allowed Diego Costa to make the forward spot his own. He has been utterly brilliant. He is quick, strong, hot headed and a very in-the-defender’s-face footballer who riles every opponent he plays both before and after scoring. Pulling the strings behind him are David Villa, Arda Turan, Koke and Diego Ribas (rejoined recently). They have the excellent Miranda, Toby Aldeweireld and Diego Godin at centre back. In the middle of the park, they play any two of Gabi, Tiago, Raul Garcia or Mario Suarez who are all technically gifted and defensively responsible. The true brilliance of Atletico lies in the pressing game that they play from the first whistle to the last which was most evident against both Barcelona and Real Madrid in recent fixtures. Whoever they can’t hassle legally is kicked into oblivion and the fear of God is put into all opponents. Atletico are managed brilliantly by Diego Simeone who has instilled belief in this side and has forced everyone to recognize Aleti as title contenders not only for this season but also the future. Atletico were outclassed 5-0 on aggregate by Real Madrid in the recent Copa del Rey semi final but have since recovered to win all games apart from the recent 2-2 against Real in the league. It is this bounce-back ability that has impressed most.
Barcelona have suffered two defeats in their last three games to Real Sociedad and Real Valladolid. They have the world’s best players at keeping possession of the ball. In Messi, Neymar, Alexis Sanchez and the highly underrated Pedro they have a terrific forward line supplemented more than ably by Xavi and Iniesta. Sergio Busquets provides the platform from where all of the tiki-taka happens. But the problem is a defense that has been average at best and woeful quite often recently. The sight of Gerard Pique lying prone somewhere and the ball in the back of the net is more common than Pique of last season. Puyol’s absence through injuries have not helped and Alex Song is just a class below the rest of his teammates. Jordi Alba and Dani Alves have been decent but the centre of the Barcelona side is too weak and easily breached too often for comfort. Barca have also suffered from the investigation into Neymar’s transfer and the alleged tax misdemeanours involved. But Barcelona have become almost too easy to play against for teams that plant 10 men behind the ball and then break at speed as was exemplified by Real Sociedad.
The Spanish title race promises to go right down to the last day of the season which is a refreshing change from the boredom of recent years. One would be foolish to bet against Real Madrid but in Atletico you have the perfect underdog. Underdog in this case is more of a Rottweiler-terminator type team led by Simeone. Lest one forgets, Barcelona are third. This blog is hoping that Atletico wins because that would be a brilliant story and because the blog would win a few handsome bets. But if asked to predict, it’d be difficult to put balls on the line. We’d rather bet on Bayern winning.
What’s that? You think we’re taking the easy way out? Go on then. Predict.