It’s comic, it’s tragic and it’s pathetic. Every season Atletico Madrid start their season saddled with a sack full of hope, hype and expectation and at the end of every season there’s rue, regret and an all too familiar disappointment wailing all around.
This time too there’s a strong suspicion that Atleti are here for good; that they are seriously looking to consolidate their position in the top four, that they might even make a run for the title challenge, that they do possess the strength and depth in their squad pre-requisite for a title contender.
All this has been said before. But the one startling fact that stands out like a moon among the starts in the night sky is that Atletico Madrid are just 1 point and 1 place off a UEFA Champions League place and have been the most entertaining team (no, seriously) in La Liga in the first 17 rounds of the season in terms of springing up outlandish results. Atletico have 31 points, 3 points fewer than FC Barcelona and 10 off local rivals Real Madrid.
And Atletico have played in style; so much so that the thrill and thrall exhibited in their matches can be likened to a young woman’s orgasm, one that carries on and on and on. Atletcio have scored 31 goals and have scored 4 goals in a match on 5 occasions. And when they are short of goals – as they were against Getafe in December, they compensate in red and yellow colors. 18 cards were brandished by the referee in that match with two players from either side taking the post-match shower early.
The Estadio Vicente Calderon, which doesn’t lack any atmosphere but requires some renovation, has been subsumed in a rocking cauldron-like wave. Atletico might have lost twice at home already this season but they have hit the opposition’s net 24 times and the scorelines include 4-0 demolitions of Racing Santander and Real Zaragoza and a 7-goal thriller against Villarreal.
Under the constructive and intelligent President Enrique Cerezo, who has been the best man the Rojiblancos could have ever had, the club has progressed smoothly and has steadily climbed up the charts. Since taking over from the highly ambitious but equally flawed Jesus Gil ,whose death in 2004 signaled the birth of a new and potentially better era, Cerezo has been filtering in money into the club, both in the senior side and the youth academy. And they have been reaping dividends. Atletico finished 11th in the 2004-2005 season, 10th in 2005-2006 and a decent(ish) 7th last season. This time they should qualify for the Champions League after 11 years.
Under Jesus Gil, Atletico Madrid were famous for the rapid firing of coaches; in fact, in his 17 years at the helm at the Calderon, Gill had employed 16 managers. Atleti even had to swallow the humble pie when they were relegated to the Segunda Division at the end of the 1999-2000 season. Under Gil, Atletico were desperately short of structure, long term plans and patience.
And Cerezo possesses all these virtues. His best move was to appoint Javier Aguirre as the team’s manager in 2006. The Mexican has been changing the philosophy of football at the club and has intelligently pieced together the otherwise unworkable jigsaw. His style has apportioned steel and silk in the right order and he has quickly disposed of players whom he doesn’t need.
The Atletico players have responded to his tactics too. Star striker and captain Fernando Torres’ departure to Liverpool in the summer has aided Atleti both financially and psychologically. Atletico ransacked Liverpool of £20 million as a result of the transfer deal and the exit of the player has galvanized a side oozing talent from every pore. Cerezo lashed out huge sums of money in the pre-season and fluxed in expensive imports Diego Forlan, Simao Sabrosa and Jose Antonio Reyes among others. While Forlan has been in his usual good form and Reyes has been helpful on several occasions, it is Sabrosa’s work ethic and quality that has propelled this Atletico team.
At Atletico, Simao might not be as prolific a goal scorer as he was at Benfica but his contribution in holding the Atletico midfield together and instilling creativity into the side in the absence of the departed Martin Petrov is undeniable. Maniche is gradually rediscovering his firm but doubts dangerously hover over the backline as Pablo Ibáñez and Amaranto Perea consistently welcome defenders to have a go at Leo Franco’s goal.
But one player who deserves a special mention is Sergio Aguero. Voted as FIFA’s Young Player of the Year 2007, el Kun has been demonstrating why he is the New New New New New New New New New Maradona. Of course Barcelona’s Lionel Messi is the best bet to become Diego Armando Maradona II but Aguero is the more nimble of the two with a low center of gravity and bags of tricks. There are a good many who are convinced that in the long run, it’ll be Aguero and not Messi who becomes this century’s El Diego. The Argentine wonderkid was acclimatizing to Spanish football last season when he scored just 6 all season and this season he has developed and matured hitting the back of the opposition net 7 times already in the league.
So the present and the immediate future appear rosy for Atletico but can the Mattress-makers (as their city rivals Real Madrid hoot at them) hold on for the rest of the season? Atletico Madrid have had several false dawns and although they are one of the bigger clubs in Spain, a huge question mark lingers on their ability to break the jinx and wake up. The new era under Enrique Cerezo is taking off but how far can it go?
This season Atleti do not only have a Hollywood line-up but are effective too. Yet this is Atletico Madrid, a club that has always flattered to deceive, a coy mistress who has bedded hope and disappointment in an unlikely threesome. At the Calderon, anything can happen, absolutely anything.