Diego Simeone refuses to call Atletico side title contenders

Andy West 04:35 04/01/2016
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Toning-down ambition: Simeone.

Diego Simeone is delighted to see his Atletico Madrid team top of the La Liga table – but still refuses to regard them as title contenders.

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A late winner from substitute Thomas Partey settled a tight contest against Levante on Saturday, allowing the 2013-14 title-winners to leapfrog Barcelona and move to the top of the standings after collecting 28 points from their last 11 league outings.

With midfielders Augusto Fernandez and Matias Kranevitter ready to reinforce the squad after being snapped up from Celta Vigo and River Plate respectively, the prospects look good for Simeone’s men mounting another strong title challenge over the next few months.

But, as he did throughout that memorable campaign two years ago, Simeone maintained his usual downbeat manner by stating: “We’re happy to be top but the team needs to continue growing.

“We can play better, we can be more effective, we can finish off our moves much better and elaborate our attacking moves better.” Simeone became well-known for his ‘one game at a time’ mentality two seasons ago, routinely dodging questions over Atletico’s championship aspirations to the extent that his evasiveness on the subject became a running joke.

And the Argentine, who has been linked with both Chelsea and Manchester United in recent weeks, showed no sign of changing his line of thinking this season as he insisted that his pre-season aim of finishing third still stands.

He added: “We have one weekend to go before we close the first round of games and our initial objective remains the same.”

He did, however, admit that he is happy with the competition for places which exists throughout the squad following a significant regeneration of the squad since last summer which saw just €100m (Dh398.4m) spent on the likes of Jackson Martinez, Stefan Savic, Yannick Ferreira Carrasco and Luciano Vietto.

“It is a positive situation for us,” he said. “The players who are doing the best in training and games will be given more minutes. Competition for places has been there since the pre-season. The best way for us to improve is to be competitive.”

Unlikely matchwinner Thomas, meanwhile, modestly claims he has a long way to go before he can be considered an important player for Atletico.

The Ghanaian midfielder, who moved to the club as a teenager and spent the last two seasons on loan at Mallorca and Almeria, is gradually becoming a regular member of the squad following long-term injury to experienced Portuguese anchorman Tiago.

Thomas’ goal to defeat Levante this weekend followed an excellent assist to create the all-important opener in the previous victory at Rayo Vallecano.

The 22-year-old said: “I’ve still got a lot to learn. Thanks to hard work I’m getting some playing time and I’m very happy about that, but the most important thing is that the team wins and anyone can score goals.”

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