And then there were three. If there was any doubt that Atletico Madrid could mount a serious La Liga challenge this year, it was expunged in Estonia the moment Diego Costa lashed a grenade past Keylor Navas.
The UEFA Super Cup is a tame curtain-raiser compared to what will come but there is a sense that Atleti proved they can go the distance in the title race after dispatching Real Madrid after extra-time.
Reigning champions Barcelona have freshened up an aging squad and Julen Lopetegui, who suffered the trauma of being sacked by Spain after being handed the Real reins, must smooth out the Cristiano Ronaldo aftershocks.
We sum up the reasons for and against all three clubs hoisting the trophy come May – here it’s Atletico Madrid’s turn.
WHY ATLETICO WILL WIN LA LIGA
A transfer ban and the move to Wanda Metropolitano disrupted the early-season rhythm for a team which needed everything to go right to maintain a challenge. This year there are no off-field distractions to worry about and shrewd moves in the market have toned up the squad, while core muscle has been retained in the likes of Antoine Griezmann.
It’s not all about record signing Thomas Lemar – Rodri’s return from Villarreal is a like-for-like replacement for club legend Gabi. Full-back Santiago Arias and winger Gelson Martins are not guaranteed starters but at the very least are top quality depth.
Diego Simeone has been at the helm for seven years now and his players would willingly throw themselves under a bus for his street fighter mentality. But make no mistake, Atleti won’t just compete with the big boys – they are big boys. Indeed Atletico’s UEFA Super Cup squad was worth more than Real’s according to transfermarkt.com.
WHY ATLETICO WON’T WIN LA LIGA
When it comes to the crunch, can they beat both Barca and Real over 90 minutes? The last time Atleti got one over the El Clasico pair in the league was in February 2016, when Griezmann silenced the Bernabeu. The squad may have improved markedly but Simeone’s charges will have much to prove when they step out onto their city rivals’ patch on September 29.
When they arrive there they may be at a disadvantage already – while Atleti were handed a fiendishly tricky opener away to Valencia, Barcelona should breeze past Alaves and Real likewise against Getafe. In a season of fine margins, playing catch-up would not be fun at all.
There are no problems at the back between Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez – but do they have the artillery to last the season? Barca and Real were touching 100 goals in La Liga last season while Atleti mustered just 58. The four or five-goal thumpings may skew the statistics in the bigger two’s favour, but occasionally those have been the games that Simeone’s men haven’t put to bed.
With motivation and age two question marks hovering over Real and Barca’s respective midfields, this could be the season Atleti’s middle men become the envy of Europe.
Simeone’s preference for a 4-4-2 is such Atleti will never rule possession with an iron grip – and that’s just fine. Koke (26) and Saul (23) have the tenacious streak their manager revelled in many moons ago, but that combat is married with an extraordinary range of passing to unlock doors out wide or through central two Griezmann and Diego Costa.
Rodri’s addition should give that pair a degree more control – the sight of those three and an electric Lemar flying across the pitch should be a joy to behold.
“Obviously our budgets are not the same, but in motivation and spirit we never feel anybody can beat us.”
Diego Simeone is rightly proud of what he’s achieved as Atletico Madrid manager since taking the role in 2011, a spell that has seen the club win seven trophies. The latest of those came on Wednesday night against hated city rivals Real Madrid, as Simeone’s team triumphed 4-2 over their more glamorous counterparts in the UEFA Super Cup.
Afterwards, the Argentine club legend uttered those words to yet again offer a fierce endorsement of his team, whose success has come despite Spanish football seemingly dominated by the financial might of Real and Barcelona.
But, while what Atletico have achieved is no doubt admirable, they’ve actually spent more over the last five total transfer windows than their derby rivals.
Since the summer of 2014 – when Real beat Atletico in a dramatic Champions League final – Atletico have outspent Los Blancos by nearly £150million: an expenditure of £510.46million compared to Real’s £365.63million.
For three straight seasons, from 2015-16 to 2017-18, Atletico’s transfer expenditure topped that of Real’s by at least £50million.
This summer, the two clubs have spent nearly the same: £111.15million for Atletico, £111.83million for Real. In fact, Atletico have made the more splashy signing, getting Thomas Lemar from Monaco. Of course, that could change, with two weeks of the transfer window left and Real linked with big-money moves for the likes of Neymar and Eden Hazard.
The figures don’t account for outgoings, with Atletico usually operating under a sell to buy policy that helps fund their transfer spending. But though no policy officially exists across the city, Real have made plenty of money in sales in recent times as well. Alvaro Morata, James Rodriguez, and, of course, Cristiano Ronaldo this summer, have all fetched princely sums for the club (or in James’ case, will do so soon).
There’s no doubt that a financial gap between Atletico and Spain’s big two exists – but it’s not as big as Simeone claims.
The United States is set to host a regular-season La Liga match as part of a new 15-year deal to promote the league in North America.
The league announced on Thursday that it had agreed a joint venture with Relevent, a multinational media, sports and entertainment group, the company behind the annual pre-season International Champions Cup.
La Liga said in a statement: “As part of the agreement, LaLiga plans to bring a regular season club match to the United States, the first to be played outside of Europe.”
No mention was made of a possible date or location for the match, or of which teams it might involve.
However, reports in the US said it could happen as early as this season, with Miami mentioned as a possible venue.
Stephen Ross, who owns Relevent, also owns the Miami Dolphins NFL team.
“This extraordinary joint venture is the next giant leap in growing soccer’s popularity in North America,” said Ross in a statement.
“This unique relationship will create new opportunities for millions of North American soccer fans to experience the most passionate, exciting, and highest level of soccer in the world.”
La Liga president Javier Tebas said: “We’re devoted to growing the passion for soccer around the world. This ground-breaking agreement is certain to give a major impulse to the popularity of the beautiful game in the US and Canada.
“Relevent has filled stadiums across the U.S. with the International Champions Cup, we’re thrilled to partner with them on a joint mission to grow soccer in North America.”