La Liga: Atletico Madrid gatecrash Real-Barca party
There used to be a league in Spain, whose winner was not presented a trophy amid a blizzard of tickertape and booming snare drums. The victorious side's manager was not playfully thrown into the air and caught back by celebrating charges. TV cameramen did not scramble to capture the outbreak of wild dressing room antics that could last well into dawn. The following day, most of the new champions would not be wearing shades that made them look like secret service agents on a presidential convoy during the traditional journey on the bus top through the city.
Because there would be no bus top journey; because there would be no celebration; because there would be no trophy. Because the new champions were not champions at all. They had finished third in the Spanish League.
In years past, that was as close as anyone got near the Spanish league trophy - anyone except Real Madrid and Barcelona. The last time a side other than those two teams won the title in Spain was eight years ago, when Valencia won the 2003-04 title under Rafael Benitez. Since then, they have run the Big Two closer than most, finishing third on five occasions since 2003-04.
But of late, Real and Barca seemed to have pulled away into an elite Superleague, stepping into an intergalactic tussle between enraged gods in which mere mortals could not contest. Last season, the gap between Valencia (third) and Real (the champions) was 39 points. That's more points than was between Valencia and the worst team in the league, Racing Santander, who managed 27 points and got relegated.
This year, too, the top two is made up of Madrid and Barcelona. But it's not the same Madrid and Barcelona.
Real, the champions, are in third place, while Atletico, their cross-town rivals and less well-off cousins, occupy second place. With almost a third of the league season over, Atleti, nicknamed the 'Mattress Makers,' are snapping at the heels of Barca, trailing them by just three points. It's as if someone from Summer School gate-crashed the Harvard-Yale Regatta.
One of the key attributes that marks out champions from the rest, Sir Alex Ferguson has always said, is winning even when not playing well. Atletico were not at their best yesterday against a dogged Granada side that showed guts and purpose. Granada are battling relegation but looked good for at least a draw, especially after Atletico had a man sent off with 20 minutes to go. But they held on for a 1-0 win.
"[In the first half], there was one superior team and that team was Granada CF," Atletico coach Diego Simeone confessed later. "They created difficulties for us, especially down the left. The reaction in the second-half was a step forward as a team."
And 'team', certainly, is the operative word here. When Valencia won the league -twice - under Benitez, no Valencia player scored more than 19 goals in the two title-winning seasons. For Atletico, however, Radamel Falcao scored 36 goals last season alone. Atleti finished only fifth in La Liga, but they won the Europa League.
This year, Falcao has again been banging in the goals, but in Simeone's first-full season as their coach, Atletico seem to have found a way to balance domestic commitments with European exertions. They annihilated European Champions Chelsea 4-1 in the UEFA Super Cup, currently top their Europa League Group B after four rounds and lead third-placed Real Madrid by five points in the league.
Their play has more cohesion than last season, with Turkish winger Arda Turan improving with every game, central midfielder Raul Garcia bringing depth and goals to the middle of the park and right-back Juanfran being superlative form since the start of the season. Simeone's decision to recall Brazilian forward Diego Costa back from loan has also proved inspired, the 24-year-old chipping in with four goals and three assists in just 11 games.
Atletico also have four 1-0 wins this season, but Simeone won't care, because Simeone knows how to win. As a player, he won everything there is to win in Italy with Internazionale and Lazio, won two international titles with Argentina before, as manager, leading Argentine giants River Plate to their last league title in 2008. But most importantly, he knows how to win in Spain. The last time Atletico won the Spanish league, Simeone's number 14 jersey was an ever-present in the field, the Argentine scoring 12 goals en route to the league title.
What if Real leapfrog Atletico and eventually pull away from the rest of the league, as they have always done before? What if, even better, Atletico manage to keep their head above the water and battle for the title with Barca? What if Real then offer what some of their rivals consider the ultimate honour: the Real Madrid manager's job?
Simeone will not take it. "I must be mad," he admits, "but it lives in my heart what I feel for this football club. I have a contract until the end of the season and if you know me then you know I go on feelings. I would never coach Real Madrid because I'm sentimental about the old things".
Wherever Atletico finish this season, they'll still have something their rivals don't. And they can't buy it.
More about Arun Pradeep
Arun Pradeep is a sports journalist who has covered international cricket and tennis events. A keen follower of European football and enthusiastic blogger, he has written extensively on the sport for the New Indian Express. His biggest dream is to see AC Milan play Newcastle United in the Champions League final with both teams sharing the trophy. Against better judgement and despite nebulous prospects, Arun firmly believes a writer's life is the best there is, even if his mom ends up footing the bills, as she often does.
- + Champions League: Why Barcelona must be afraid
- + Champions League: Bayern flex muscles, Real just glide
- + Champions League: Harsh lessons for AC Milan, Arsenal
- + EPL: Arsenal in free-fall
- + Serie A: Fiorentina spice up Italian top-flight
- + Steven Gerrard still pushing boundaries at 32
- + EPL: Robin Van Persie leads the line for United
- + EPL: United silence 'noisy neighbours', but City still in this fight
- + Serie A: Capricious Milan roll over mighty Juve