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Atletico are amid an identity crisis under Diego Simeone, but Liverpool may be suitable opponents

Atleti are struggling with the favourites tag in La Liga. The visit of the European champions allows them to be underdogs once again.

Diego Simeone.
Diego Simeone.
Image: SIPA USA/PA Images

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN the barbarians not only breach the gate, but become the ruling class? 

This is the conflicted status of the present-day Atletico Madrid, who are now struggling for an identity as members of a monied order they once strove to overthrow. 

Diego Simeone arrived in 2011 and led the revolt. They were a fabulously unruly bunch, disrupting the Barcelona/Real Madrid duopoly through their gritty, inexhaustible will.

They bridged the financial chasm to their rivals through a kind of demented energy, unleashed by Simeone to course through stalwarts like Diego Godin, Koke, Raul Garcia, Diego Costa, Juanfran, and Gabi. If you want an image of this Atletico side, picture Simeone thrusting forward his crotch while roaring cojones at the sky. 

The hard-working, collective endeavour of Simeone’s Atletico felt like a rebuke to their royalist city rivals, who predicated their success on a hierarchy of talents. Remember Florentio Perez’s mantra of Zidanes y Pavones? 

That project foundered on its own decadence when they recruited too many Zidanes, but years later, Simeone gave the impression his ideal team would consist of Pavones y Pavones. Atletico, a club once resigned to forever being the poor relation in their city, were made successful by Diego Simeone precisely because of that status.

And what a success it has been. In terms of silver: a League title, a Copa Del Rey, two Europa League titles…and those two Champions League final defeats to Real Madrid. Arguably most successful is the fact they’ve spent years forcing us to recast the La Liga as a three-horse race.

This success was relatively cheaply made, but the true cost of it is only becoming apparent now. It’s the Simeone Paradox: to beat the establishment he must be separate from them…but now that he’s beaten the establishment, he finds himself among them.

So how to beat them again? 

top-10-world-sports-news-events-in-2019 Liverpool lift the European Cup on Atleti's home turf last June. Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

This has been a pretty wretched season thus far for Atleti. They were knocked out of the Cup by third-tier Cultural Leonesa, and are fourth in La Liga, out of the title race and level on points with fifth-placed Sevilla. They have won just twice since the turn of the year, both one-goal wins at home to Levante and Granada. 

Goals are a serious problem: they’ve been held scoreless in nine of their 24 league games to date, and only eight of the remaining games have seen them score more than once. they struggle to break sides down at home, and it is the misfortune of his success that Simeone has fashioned a point away to Atletico Madrid as a good result. 

While they lost Antoine Griezmann to Barcelona in the summer, they spent more than €200 million to recruit Alvaro Morata and Joao Felix, the latter rated as Europe’s next great talent. 

Simone himself is now the best-paid manager in the game, and put plainly these recent struggles are not befitting their outlay. 

“Simeone has always said Atletico are fighting to finish third, that they are the club of the people and the club of the barrio, but that doesn’t cut it when you’re buying players for €120 million”, says Robbie Dunne, a Kildare journalist working with AS in Madrid. 

“There are now serious doubts about the Simeone project. It’s been a slow and steady decline, and it’s difficult to know where to point the finger.” 

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Simeone has broken the habit of a life-time and pointed fingers himself, publicly admitting that the big-money signing of 2018, Thomas Lemar, has underwhelmed. Lemar, like Felix, is a mercurial attacker, recruited as the stardust necessary for Atleti to get over the line in Europe. 

He has been hugely disappointing, however, with debate raging as to whether he hasn’t adapted to Simeone or whether Simeone hasn’t adapted to him. 

“Lemar looks sapped of confidence. A recent report in El Mundo Deportivo said that the player hasn’t fit in, and is more worried about making mistakes. There are cracks in the relationship, to the point that Simeone came out publicly and said that Lemar hasn’t lived up to expectations, which is very rare for him.

“Simeone prefers to win 1-0 than 4-3. If a game is 4-3 he sees seven mistakes. But that’s his philosophy, that’s who he is as a person and you won’t change that.” 

There have been issues too with Felix. Atleti spent pre-season changing from Simeone’s 4-4-2 to a new 4-3-3, designed to get the best from their record signing. It hasn’t worked.

Felix has scored just two league goals all season, and recently made a theatre of screaming and gesturing for the ball along the sideline in front of Simeone, the subtext being he isn’t trusted with it often enough. 

spain-atletico-de-madrid-ca-osasuna The ongoing turbulence of Joao Felix. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

“Simeone can’t figure out how to get the best out of Joao Felix”, says Dunne, “and that saps the life out of a creative player.” 

Ironically, these problems may abate against Liverpool, as the tie gives Simeone another chance to revert to his favoured role: the underdog. Those strengths of his initial years may again find favour tonight. 

Koke’s recent return from injury is vital, and expect the manager to revert to his favoured 4-4-2 and let slip his dogs of war. Expect the relatively graceless Marcos Llorente to add bite to midfield, while the eternally unpleasant Diego Costa may return in attack with Felix injured. 

Liverpool remain favourites as they return to the scene of last year’s triumph, but expect Simeone and Atletico to raise the cudgels in unfancied rebellion.

The muscle memory of the underdog makes them a dangerous opponent.

Atletico Madrid (possible XI): Jan Oblak; Sime Vrsaljko, Jose Gimenez, Stefan Savic, Felipe; Koke, Saul, Marcos Llorente, Thomas; Diego Costa, Angel Correa

Liverpool (possible XI): Alisson; Trent Alexander-Arnold, Joe Gomez, Virgil van Dijk, Andy Robertson; Fabinho, Jordan Henderson, Gini Wijnaldum; Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane 

Misses next match if booked: Andy Robertson 

 On TV: RTÉ Two, BT Sport; KO 8pm

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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