Despite being league champions. Despite being bankrolled by a royal family, and despite having the greatest manager in the world at their disposal, Real Madrid are not the best team in Spain. In fact at the moment, they are not even the best team in Madrid. That honour, and the honour of pursuing Barcelona falls this year to Atletico Madrid.
There were signs that Atletico were making progress – winning the Europa League in 2010 and defeating everyone’s second favourite team, Bilbao in the Europa League final in 2012. Los Colchoneros served notice of their abilities this season too – swatting aside a disinterested Chelsea in the Uefa Super Cup 4-1.
Their start to La Liga has surprised more than just Madrilenos though. Atletico remain unbeaten after 7 games and are joint top with the all-conquering Barcelona. Their defence of the Europa League has seen them record two facile wins over Israeli and Czech opposition.
Admittedly they haven’t faced either of the big two yet, but as they are currently 8 points ahead of their ‘Royal’ neighbours, they could actually lose to both big sides and still be ahead of Real.
Coach Diego Simone is working with a fairly unstarry squad. Their goalkeeper Thierry Cortois is on loan from Chelsea, Brazilian full-back Filipe Luis has a single international cap to his name. Admittedly midfielder Diego Garcia is a player of some repute, and Turkish winger Arda Turan is a star back home, but they aren’t really what you would call household names. Tiago Mendes was a big name at Chelsea (pre Michael Essien), but of course the sole ‘big name’ at the club is Colombian striker Radamael Falcao.
Despite costing Atletico a princely 40m Euros in 2011, Falcao has undoubtledly been a great value signing. He is generally agreed to be the best player in Spain outside of the big two, and it remains one of the great mysteries of the 2012 summer transfer windows that one of the megabucks sides from Spain, England or France didn’t offer something absurd like 70m to tempt him away. He has netted 33 goals in 40 league appearances for Atletico and has scored 8 times in 6 games so far this season. Chelsea will know him best for the hat-trick he stuck past them in that Super Cup shambles.
Whether Atletico can keep this going remains to be seen. For the neutral though, it offers hope that the 2-way battle in La Liga can, for the first time since 2004 be broken up by a third party. It also shows that good scouting and a good team spirit can be worth as much as a fat wallet.
Mark Cruise is a soccer writer for Rantsports.com – you can follow him on Twitter @chiefhairyman