Simeone has lost his soldiers but not his bite

Atletico Madrid’s last meeting with an English side in the Champions League was a marker both of how far the club had come and how far it would continue to go. When Diego Costa rifled his penalty into the roof of Chelsea’s net on that day in 2014, Diego Simeone and his men were set on a path that would continue far beyond the subsequent final that it earned.

Despite Sergio Ramos rising to the moment like only he can to ruin the fairytale ending, the club would endure. Even after talisman Costa and other key players left at the end of the season, Atleti stood firm. Instead of disintegrating after a rare La Liga title triumph – a curse many a dark horse have succumbed to – the team evolved; replacing any hits to its structure with stronger, sturdier bricks. Two years later they found themselves in the premier European final once more. 

Few coaches in the global game can hold a candle to Simeone’s consistency in the near-10 years he has coached in Spain. Even without the resources of the country’s big two, he has built teams that hack away at their duopoly; invariably giving them something to think about season after season.

But now he must do it all again. When Liverpool line up at the Wanda Metropolitano onTuesday, they will do so against a side far different from that which their English counterparts had to contend with; or even that which we might have seen as recently as last year.

Madrid has been stripped of much of the weaponry that has been instrumental in fighting for the cause. Antoine Griezmann made his long-awaited move to Barcelona; Rodri found a new home in Manchester while long-time servants Juanfran, Diego Godin and Filipe Luis have all finally reached the end of the road. There is no denying that a piece of the Atleti identity as we’ve come to know it died with their departures. 

The new reality has forced Simeone to embrace that most icky footballing term: transition. Just how he’s handling the burden is still very much up for debate. Madrid have been painfully toothless, barely managing a goal a game – not a big surprise considering the attacking wealth and experience that was lost in the summer.

Joao Felix, the trumpeted £113-million Benfica buy, has largely disappointed. Too often cut out of play, and recently struggling with injury, Simeone is yet to figure out a way of routinely and effectively building attacks through him. Still, his talent remains clear and as a teenager there’s no shortage of time to unlock his full capabilities. 

Yet where Felix has underwhelmed, Kieran Trippier has been a revelation. Arguably the brightest aspect of the season, the width he creates has often been his side’s sharpest tool the rare times they do crack open the opposition – an effect that’s even deadlier with a similarly marauding Renan Lodi on the other side.

Despite the new recipe yet to bubble to its full potential, Atletico have demonstrated their usual indefatigable ability to hang in there no matter how hard you kick at their fingers. It wasn’t pretty but they made it through the group stages to set up this chance in the first place. Over in Spain, title ambitions have all but gone but a top-four spot remains firmly in sight.

From Liverpool’s perspective, none of that should matter, however. All that should is that this very much remains a Diego Simeone team. El Cholo has, and always will, mould the team in his image. A tenacious, occasionally vicious, player, the Argentine would allow no pair of ankles to saunter around in his midfield unchecked. He has always accepted no less from those he commands. Sure, key players have played major parts in the last few years, but he alone is the linchpin.

The European Champions are also the exact type of side that Atletico feed off of. Like a python that intensifies its crushing force when its prey attempts to breath, peak Madrid sides have always welcomed attackers into their half— from there they can be easily ensnared before the ball is sent in the other direction. Few football experiences look as frustrating as attempting to breach Simeone’s backline when he decides that no one will be let in today.

Mohamed Salah and friends have grown accustomed to setting the tempo. How they will respond when that tempo hits a brick wall will likely determine how this tie ends. You should not go into this one expecting anything pretty: if El Cholo has his way this will be 180 minutes of ground-out trench warfare.

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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