Win or lose in Saturday’s Champions League final against Real Madrid, this has been another outstanding season for Atletico Madrid.
Reaching European club football’s showpiece event for the second time in three years is a major achievement by any standards, especially as it coincided with a serious title challenge against two of the most wealthy and powerful teams in the world.
And the good news for Los Rojiblancos is that their success is not a one, two or even three-season wonder: they are here to stay.
For starters, of course, they are blessed by the presence of a remarkable manager in Diego Simeone, whose commitment to the club in the face of interest from richer teams is as admirable as the organisational and motivational skills he imparts to his squad.
Atletico are also narrowing the financial gap between themselves and the rest, thanks to the club’s ongoing relationship with massive Chinese property company Wanda Group, and a realignment of La Liga’s television revenue distribution which is likely to increase their earnings by around 50 per cent to pass the ¤100 million (Dh409m) barrier next season.
But perhaps the biggest cause for optimism is the age of the team, which suggests they could get even better, with 11 of Saturday’s likely 17-man squad 25 or under.
Saul Niguez, scorer of the brilliant winner in the semi-final home leg against Bayern Munich, is only 21. So too Uruguyan Jose Maria Gimenez, who has learned so much alongside his compatriot and fellow centre back Diego Godin.
Jan Oblak, at just 23, can be one of the world’s top goalkeepers for another decade or more; Spain
international Koke, despite having already recorded nearly 300 senior appearances, is still only 24.
There are more top talents bubbling below the surface, including Yannick Carrasco (22), Thomas Partey (22), Angel Correa (21), Oliver Torres (21) and Lucas Hernandez (20) all poised to make a bigger impact in the coming years.
Atletico’s ability to develop homegrown stars ensures a steady supply line of talent which forms the basis of a very strong team.
Throw in the new-found TV and sponsorship riches and, assuming they spend well in the transfer market, they have everything in their favour to remain in the elite.
There are, of course, a few caveats. Full-backs Juanfran and Filipe Luis, and captain Gabi, are all in their 30s and will soon need to be replaced, and another top-class striker will also be required as Fernando Torres declines.
There is also the danger that stars such as Antoine Griezmann, Koke or Saul will be tempted away – money talks, even with players tutored by the team-first ethic of Simeone. And most alarmingly, the manager could leave to take over the Argentine national team or return to Internazionale.
But those dangers are present at every club – imagine Barcelona without Lionel Messi, for instance.
Long-term success can never be guaranteed (just ask Manchester United) but with all the ingredients at their disposal, Atletico Madrid are as close as it gets.
The La Liga side beat Liverpool to claim their third consecutive crown in Europe but were defeated in extra-time by Barcelona in last weekend’s Copa del Rey final.
Sevilla fans are the best in the world!!! https://t.co/0hDPXjgXCD— Sevilla FC (@SevillaFC_ENG) May 23, 2016
What did you make of the match and who was your standout performer from both sides?
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HOW THE CUP WAS WON
The game lacked any real clear-cut chances for either side in a final that turned out to be more physical than attractive on the eye.
It brought out a different Barcelona team to the one we’re used to seeing but when they finally broke the deadlock it was clinical.
A goalless 90 minutes took the match to extra-time, seven minutes into which Jordi Alba burst forward from left-back to latch on to a sublime dink over the top from Lionel Messi before lashing home across goal.
It was a more direct approach from Barca than their usual style but equally effective and ended up handing them a 1-0 win and the Copa del Rey trophy.
Neymar added a second in the 123rd minute, the win already Barca’s by then but further gloss added by the Brazilian.
It was a typically heated encounter between the two teams, both sets of players coming face-to-face on a number of occasions as tackles flew in.
The referee had a difficult time of things and struggled to contain the players, brandishing no less than thirteen yellow cards and three reds in total.
Javier Mascherano was the first player to be sent off, just 36 minutes in after denying Kevin Gameiro a goal-scoring opportunity…
And late on in the 90 minutes of normal time Ever Banega was given his marching orders for a similar digression on Neymar…
Red card for Sevilla! Banega brings down Neymar in stoppage time. Both teams are now down to 10 men. pic.twitter.com/9XzT36i0ZL— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) May 22, 2016
Then, deep into extra-time injury-time, Carrico Martins was given his marching orders for a second booking with the score still 1-0 but Barcelona on course for the victory.
Doble amarilla para Carriço, primero por la falta y luego por reclamar al arbitro, todo en la misma jugada pic.twitter.com/OmSo2kJ09T— GaboFutven (@GaboFutve) May 22, 2016
MAN OF THE MATCH – SERGIO RICO
The Sevilla stopper was quite simply outstanding.
He wasn’t tested too greatly in the ninety but did enough to keep the prolific MSN strikeforce at bay before excelling in extra-time.
Rico could do little to deny Alba his goal but went on to make a series of stunning saves to deny an increasingly confident Barca that desperately looked to put the game to bed, which they eventually did but not until the dying moments and not before Rico showed his class.
This one to thwart Dani Alves was a particular highlight.
Paradón impresionante de Sergio Rico a disparo de Dani Alves pic.twitter.com/dbVoBWpBGl— Venezuela Deportiva (@VenDeportiva) May 22, 2016
THE LASTING MEMORY
Injured in the second-half with the scores level and dreams of Copa America glory fading from him, Luis Suarez was withdrawn from the action.
He was devastated and the image of him crying on the bench will be an abiding memory from this final.
Luis Suarez as he left the pitch injured tonight https://t.co/2pkOK2e4ld— Sport360° (@Sport360) May 22, 2016