The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION
Atletico Madrid feeds off Diego Simeone's confidence to transform into Spanish champion
MADRID - Atletico Madrid's transformation from perennial collapse artists into confident, game-hardened Spanish league champions comes down to coach Diego Simeone.
Exquisitely clad in an all-black suit with his hair slicked back tight, Simeone's confidence stood strong during a season when Atletico ultimately surpassed Barcelona and Real Madrid as everyone waited for it to do the inevitable, and slip-up.
"You enjoy it. I sleep well because this is my passion, and I'm in the place where I want to be, coaching the team I want to be," said Simeone, who became the fifth Argentine coach to win the league. "I can't complain."
Even the 99,000-capacity Camp Nou spectators were grateful for the first non-Barcelona or Madrid champion since Valencia in 2004, as chants of "Atleti" showered the visitors after they won their 10th title and first in 18 years.
"What we're trying to do is to show society and other clubs that if you keep working you can compete," said Simeone, whose season-long discourses have often touched on Atletico's "of the people" character.
"This is nothing new, but beyond whoever wins in the end, people from all Spanish football teams will reflect on this Atletico Madrid and think how far their own teams can go."
Simeone preached discipline, team work, and camaraderie week after week — win or lose. And while such words are chalked up to sport cliches perhaps, in Atletico's case, it wasn't just a turn of phrase.
The 44-year-old Simeone, who sometimes references star signs in making decisions, managed to turn around a team featuring few world-class talents and mostly discarded players into a champion despite all of the doubters waiting for Atletico and its unexpected rise to eventually implode.
"Last season we started very strongly and with nine games left we were nine points back of Barca and the coach said it was possible. It wasn't then, but you could see the vision our coach had," defender Luis Filipe said.
Simeone has brought his passion for victory and hatred for losing to Atletico since his arrival in December 2011, slowly feeding his player's confidence to build a team in his own image, that of the hardened general who patrolled the midfield in his playing days.
Atletico won the Europa League to close his first season then ended a 14-year winless streak against city rival Real with a Copa del Rey win at Madrid's Santiago Bernabeu Stadium. Atletico carried that confidence into this season, when Diego Costa's quick rise left fans forgetting about Radamel Falcao after the Colombia striker's departure.
Costa, who spent much of his career bouncing around the Spanish league, settled in to net 27 goals — bettered only by Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
Costa's rise came with the emergence of midfield maestro Koke, as integral as on-loan goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.
But the remainder of the squad did not change, with Simeone managing to turn defenders Diego Godin and Miranda into the league's best defensive block, while resuscitating the drive of captain Gabi Fernandez, Thiago Mendes and Raul Garcia, who have provided Atletico with the guts it needed in the midfield.
"I'm proud of the group that I've formed," Simeone said. "They know how to cover each other, and they all deserved it. That's how the team was able to compete as it did."
Now, a victory over Real in the Champions League final next Saturday in Lisbon would complete a historic double.
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