Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION
Posted: 05/17/2014 4:43 AM | Comments: 0
When they line up against Barcelona for today’s La Liga’s title decider at Camp Nou, Atletico Madrid will consist of a handful of underappreciated homegrown players surrounded by an assortment of castoffs, rejects and other clubs’ hand-me-downs.
They may be only a single point from winning the Spanish top flight for the first time in 18 years, and they’re also headed to next weekend’s Champions League final against local rivals Real Madrid, but this Atletico side is the unlikeliest of unlikely contenders — a squad built with players nobody wanted.
Standout right-back Juanfran, for example, was a Real Madrid prospect before finding himself at Espanyol and Osasuna, and centre-back Miranda spent a single, underwhelming season at Ligue 1 Sochaux before returning to his native Brazil, where Sao Paulo allowed his contract to expire in 2011.
Midfielder Tiago was also acquired on a free transfer; left-back Filipe Luis spent time in the youth systems of Ajax and Real Madrid before arriving at Estadio Vicente Calderon, and star striker Diego Costa bounced around the lesser clubs of Portugal and Spain before becoming what Barcelona manager Gerardo Martino described on Friday as "one of the best centre-forwards in Europe."
Even standout goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, who will start between the sticks for Belgium at the upcoming World Cup, is only a loanee — biding his time with Los Colchoneros (the club’s nickname refers to a popular mattress pattern) until Premier League giants Chelsea decide what to do with him.
If Atletico seem like a mish-mash of a team, out of place amid Spanish soccer royalty, it’s because they are. And they’re well aware of it.
"We have a collective work that takes a lot of effort," Atletico manager Diego Simeone told Spanish outlet Diario AS in the buildup to today’s showdown. "We have a different style to the club... it means a lot of work."
Indeed, Atletico’s hallmark this season has been pragmatism — the willingness to defend in concert, attack when necessary and always, always attach an intimidating, physical element to their game.
"What makes Atleti stand out is their strength as a team," added Martino. He should know.
In the pair of Champions League matches Atletico and Barcelona contested early last month, the capital side committed 39 fouls to the Catalans’ 25 and were out-possessed by more than 40 per cent.
Nevertheless, it was Atletico who progressed to the next round of the competition on 2-1 aggregate, and over the 180 minutes they managed 20 shots.
In fact, the reigning champions have found the back of the net just twice in five matches against Atletico this season, and both tallies were notched by Neymar. Four-time Ballon d’Or winner Lionel Messi has so far been a non-factor against the current leaders — his paltry 56 touches of the ball in the second leg of the Champions League tie representing a particular low point.
But Barca need only a single win over Atletico in order to clinch the title, and to get the three points Martino is targeting a perfect performance today.
"We have to focus on ourselves and do everything right," he said, adding that the task would become especially difficult if his side found themselves trailing an opponent that rarely gives up leads.
Simeone, meanwhile, is hopeful his cobbled-together group of players can win Atletico’s first championship since 1996 when he, himself, was the sort of tough-tackling midfielder his squad has since come to emulate.
"We are here on merit," he said. "I would like to demonstrate that (finishing above Barcelona and Real Madrid) is at least possible."
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