Maybe the occasion got the better of Atletico Madrid’s players. Maybe the pressure of knowing they had to put an end to that losing streak against Real Madrid became too overwhelming. Regardless of Atletico’s 2-0 loss at city rivals Real on Saturday night, their biggest test will be the next game and how they cope for the remainder of the calendar year.
There is a positive in the fact that the La Liga season comes to a brief halt over the Christmas period. Whatever anxieties Diego Simeone’s team may have following the derby defeat, the manager will certainly be able to reassess and allow his players to recharge the batteries for a renewed charge come January.
It was a mixture of Atletico’s excellent form this season and Real Madrid’s lack of inconsistency which resulted in the former holding an eight-point lead in the league table going into the game at the Santiago Bernabeu. Even with the loss, Atletico still have clear daylight between themselves and their rivals, but those five-points won’t look as comfortable if they can’t find a way to move on from the defeat.
It would be fair to say that many had expected this weekend to be the moment where Atletico really made their name heard beyond the boundaries of Spanish football. The win over Chelsea in the Uefa Super Cup was a fantastic result and showed their great attacking qualities, but the team needed to claim one of the big scalps in La Liga; with Real Madrid far from their best at the moment, Atletico had their most opportune moment to stake a claim as a genuine challenger this season.
What Simeone has done at the club over the past 12 months has been fantastic. Atletico is a club with huge financial troubles, while the constant changing of managers meant there was little stability or even hope for a prolonged stay near the two top teams in La Liga.
The Argentine manager, however, has come in a made this a winning team with purpose and direction on the pitch; it has thus far been a far cry from the short spell Gregorio Manzano had in charge at the club.
Radamel Falcao has always been one of the deadliest strikers in European football, but Simeone helped to bring the best out of him at the Vicente Calderon. He set up the team to feed the striker, and so much of their success is directly attributed to how dangerous he’s been over the best part of this year.
But arguably an even bigger task for the manager is restoring the calm among his players. They were edgy, erratic and unable to play their natural game against Real Madrid. Again, it could simply be a case of the expectations overwhelming them. The disappointing and hugely worrying alternative is that they might not have been as good as everyone claimed them to be. But even with a much more modest squad in comparison to Real Madrid and Barcelona, that conclusion seems implausible. There is undeniable quality throughout this Atletico team and the assumption that Falcao is the only name of note is widely off the mark. Yes, the Colombian striker is their focal point, but there’s so much to admire about players like Diego Godin, Arda Turan, Filipe Luis and Thibaut Courtois.
Atletico’s defensive record in November has been perfect: they had kept clean sheets in all their games in every competition, the most impressive being the 4-0 win against Sevilla. Their next league fixture sees them against an inferior but still dangerous Deportivo. It has been games such as this where Atletico have so confidently exerted their dominance and come away with three points. The problem is, the following league game sees them travel to Barcelona, with a Copa Del Rey tie against Getafe sandwiched in the middle.
Barcelona have arguably been the best team on the continent this season, but even if the Catalans pick up an expected win, Atletico will need to remain focused and continue to build on their good work. It only takes these two games against the big two in Spain for Atletico to crumble and go the way of so many more potential challengers in the past.
Diego Simeone might look to an obvious factor of their loss to Real on the weekend as the setting: Real are yet to lose a league game at home all season. But there was very little fight from his side throughout the tie.
Atletico have so far provided the biggest hope that a new dawn is approaching Spanish football. They’re equipped with the players and the manager to be a success, but it would be a real shame if all of the proposed hopes were nothing more than hollow imaginings.