By Leo Linden
Atletico Madrid is currently in the midst of the biggest week of its season, with massive challenges approaching both on the continent and domestically. They are often viewed as Spain’s third-best team, and not nearly as decorated as the other two, but, recently, the Madrid side has been very close to its city and Catalan rivals, turning the perennial duel between Barcelona and Real Madrid into a three-horse race.
Club Atletico de Madrid was founded 112 years ago by three Madrid-based Basques, who originally saw the team as a developmental squad for their senior side, Athletico Bilbao. The club grew, however, thanks to the polarizing Real Madrid team, picking up players and fans who were upset with what would become the club's closest rival.
With Spain still not having a united league, Los Colchoneros (the mattresses), who got their nickname because their jerseys resembled old-style red-and-white-striped mattresses, began competing in the Campeonato del Centro and won the competition three times in the 1920s. In a strange twist of fate, the club faced their then-parent-side Bilbao in the 1921 Copa del Rey final, and unsurprisingly ended up as runners-up.
Though they weren’t initially successful when La Liga was formed in 1929, Atletico benefitted from the Spanish Civil War, as they were spared what would have been their second relegation in 1936 when Real Oviedo couldn’t compete due to their stadium being destroyed by bombings, allowing Los Colchoneros to survive a relegation playoff.
After a three-year break for the war, the league re-started, and in the meantime, Atletico had merged with Aviacion Nacional, a Zaragoza-based side that was founded by members of the Spanish Air Force. The new side, Aviacion Nacional de Madrid, found immediate success, winning the first two La Ligas following the war.
Though they didn’t win another league title until 1966 — which was also followed by championships throughout the next decade in 1970, 1973 and 1977 — they captured their first three Copa del Rey titles in between.
But, since the aforementioned trip to the winner's circle in 1977, Los Colchoneros have only won two La Liga titles and five Copa del Reys, rounding both off to an even 10 apiece. And, while that is certainly no lack of success, given the country's relative lack of depth, the powerhouse arguably could have done better.
But Simeone had much higher goals for the club and has continued to move the team forward despite key losses just about every season, with the likes of Radamel Falcao, Diego Forlan, Diego Costa, Thibaut Courtois, David Villa, and most recently Arda Turan all departing during the manager's short five-year reign. After winning UEFA’s secondary club competition, Los Colchoneros won the Copa del Rey, defeating Real Madrid in the final in extra time.
Then, in the 2013-14 season, things really
While falling just short could have severely crushed the club, they bounced backed decently, and though that didn’t include any trophies in 2014-15, Simeone’s side did finish third in the league, defeat Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey (before losing to Barcelona), and make another trip deep into the UCL, losing 1-0 on aggregate to, surprise, Real in the quarter-finals (the winning goal came by way of Chicharito in the 88th minute of the second leg).
So, in truth, the club seems to be a victim of its own nationality. In recent times, on the continent, Atletico have been able to find a way past just about every side not from Spain, and that problem is an even bigger one domestically.
Now, the club finds itself at a massive crossroads in its season, with two huge fixtures in the next five days. After topping Group C, Atletico match up with PSV Eindhoven in the Champions League on Wednesday. In truth, it’s a very kind draw for the Spaniards, who could have faced PSG, Arsenal, or
Things don’t get any easier on the home front, as they face Real Madrid this weekend in a match that could knock one or both out of the title race for good. Though they are in second — ahead of Real by one point — Atletico trail the Catalan outfit by eight points, and a loss combined with a Barcelona win (and who would pick against Barca right now) would leave Los Colchoneros more than 10 points out. Though that’s still alive mathematically, and plenty could change in the final 12 fixtures, every week it seems more and more like it’s going to take an incredible run of form (combined with some unpredictable struggles from the Catalans) to take down Barca.
Regardless of if they fall off in the title race, Simeone will still find himself focused on the Champions League title he has yet to win with the Spanish side. That will give the team a fight that could make them a very interesting outfit come May.