Simeone the cheerleader inspires return of vintage Atletico as European champions are frustrated

By Sports Desk February 18, 2020

Over the past nine years or so under Diego Simeone, Atletico Madrid had become that team "no one wants to play" in a knockout clash.

Their resilience, work ethic and downright dirtiness made them arguably the toughest team to play against in Europe – not because of any particular brilliance, but because they were the embodiment of their coach on the pitch.

That aura has somewhat diminished over the past 18 months or so, and there's no getting away from the fact this has been a testing season for Atletico and Simeone, with few giving them a chance against European champions Liverpool in the Champions League last 16.

After finally getting past the Antoine Griezmann saga in pre-season, there had been a feeling Atletico could hit the reset button and begin a process of reinvention following signs of stagnation.

They've done anything but. While they remain shrewd defensively, in attack Atletico are as toothless as they have ever been under Simeone, having only scored more than one other side in LaLiga's top 10.

An anxiousness seems to have engulfed Atletico at times this term, their new-look team appearing uneasy with the pressure that accompanies their established status as favourites in almost any match.

But on Tuesday they were transformed. For a night, the real Atletico were back, and they beat Liverpool 1-0 at the Wanda Metropolitano.

Their start was as good as anything Atletico have produced all season. Whether they were spurred on by the raucous atmosphere inside the Wanda or some feisty pre-match words from Simeone, it's unclear.

However, Atletico were sharper than the European champions everywhere, snapping into tackles, getting the ball forward quickly and directly, and their intensity off the ball was like the classic Atleti sides of the previous decade.

Atletico used to be the ultimate underdog, their tirelessness, tenacity and voracious nature mirroring the ideals and mannerisms of Simeone, who prowled the touchline throughout. They were never afraid of the big occasion, and all that came flooding back even when Liverpool were on the front foot.

A fortuitous touch off Fabinho allowed Saul Niguez to put Atletico in front after just four minutes.

An early goal from a corner, allowing them to absorb pressure and play on the counter or wait for errors – it was about as quintessential Atletico as it gets.

This situation should've seen them get a second goal in the 26th minute, as Virgil van Dijk's woeful defensive header was pounced on by Alvaro Morata, but after cutting inside Fabinho he could only shoot straight at Alisson from close range.

Liverpool were short of ideas in response, their first shot coming in the 29th minute – a rather hopeless long-range effort from the right foot of Andy Robertson, and Fabinho followed suit with a similarly harmless attempt soon after.

A Mohamed Salah shot that was crucially blocked by Felipe was the best the Reds could muster in the first half, and they fared little better after the interval and ended without a single shot on target, with Atleti's back four and hard-working front six doing a commendable job of limiting space for Liverpool to exploit.

"The people of Atletico always wanted a competitive team, a team that was strong in defence, a team that would play on the counter-attack and be a nuisance for the super-powerful sides," Simeone once wrote in the Coaches' Voice. They certainly delivered on that against Liverpool, with Atletico's coach spending virtually the entire match on his feet, playing the role of chief cheerleader.

Another opportunity fell to Morata on the break deep into the second half, but the much-maligned striker lost his footing at the crucial moment and he was withdrawn soon after.

And therein lies Atletico's biggest problem – with just seven goals, Morata is their most prolific scorer in LaLiga this season and there's every chance Liverpool will make him pay for wasting his two glorious opportunities when they resume hostilities at Anfield.

But on a night that Atletico once again reminded Europe of their status as masters of the mundane, Morata shouldn't be the focus.

No, at a time when many have suggested change is needed at the Wanda Metropolitano, Simeone showed evidence his dynasty's destructive powers are still capable of upsetting the elite.

Related items

  • Coronavirus: Serie A to allow five substitutions Coronavirus: Serie A to allow five substitutions

    Serie A will allow teams to make five substitutions during games for the remainder of the 2019-20 campaign.

    It brings Italy's top flight into line with a temporary law amendment announced by the International Football Association Board (IFAB) last month.

    World football's pre-eminent rule-making body made the alterations as a means to ease the strain on players returning to action following the extended coronavirus hiatus.

    If a team wishes to make all five changes, they must come in no more than three match interruptions, aside from half-time.

    Serie A is set to resume on June 20, more than three months after the league was suspended due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

  • Solskjaer impressed with spirit as Man United try 'new ideas' ahead of resumption Solskjaer impressed with spirit as Man United try 'new ideas' ahead of resumption

    Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been implementing "new ideas" in Manchester United's training and the manager is impressed with the team's spirit as training intensity is ramped up ahead of the Premier League's resumption.

    United will get their 2019-20 campaign back underway in two weeks' time at Tottenham, more than three months after their most recent match – the 5-0 Europa League win at LASK on March 12.

    Prior to the coronavirus-enforced hiatus, United had hit a strong run of form, enjoying an 11-match unbeaten streak across all competitions, including Premier League wins over Chelsea and Manchester City.  

    That resurgence was in spite of injuries to key players Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba, both of whom are expected to be available again when the season recommences.

    And with Pogba yet to play alongside new signing Bruno Fernandes, United fans are understandably excited at the prospect, and Solskjaer confirmed the team has been working on fresh "ideas" in training.

    "Training has been about recapping what we did well, tweaking maybe one or two things and looking at some new ideas," he told United's official website. "But hopefully we can see a lot of what we saw towards the end before the lockdown.

    "We've got games coming weekend, midweek, weekend for a spell, so you have to focus on ourselves and not just on that one, first game.

    "We've been looking forward to these games for ages really. It does make it feel like, 'Yes, we're here soon'. The first game is two weeks from today [Friday], so we need to step up the training and get an edge to our game again.

    "Everyone knows that we will have to be at our best, have to be focused [against Tottenham]. We know it's a big game for everyone. We had Chelsea when we started the league this season, so I'm confident that our players can go into the Tottenham game with that mentality of going there to play a very good game of football."

    While the coronavirus suspension prevented players from training together for nearly three months, Solskjaer was thrilled to see they have managed to keep themselves fit, and he believes the competitive edge is beginning to shine through now contact training is allowed.

    "In any interview, I'd say, 'Yes the mood is great and the spirit's good' but it has been really good," Solskjaer continued.

    "I think everyone can see over the last few months how the players have behaved and dealt with the situation and how we as a club have dealt with it. The players have kept themselves fit as well, which has been great.

    "The weather was fantastic when they got going in small groups and gradually now, as we've got into contact training, you can see a little bit more of the edge but also the camaraderie and team bonding.

    "That's vital for me in a team. That's one of the main things, that we are a team and the team goes before anything else."

    United are fifth in the Premier League, three points behind fourth-placed Chelsea and two ahead of Wolves and Sheffield United, as the tussle for the final Champions League spot looks set to go to the wire.

  • It's like racist people haven't got brains - Gabriel Jesus backs Black Lives Matter movement It's like racist people haven't got brains - Gabriel Jesus backs Black Lives Matter movement

    Gabriel Jesus believes growing support for the Black Lives Matter movement comes from people being "exhausted" from suffering injustice and racism

    The Brazil and Manchester City footballer has added his voice to those calling for change amid the protests that have swept the United States and beyond in the aftermath of George Floyd's death.

    Floyd died in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25 after a police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

    Derek Chauvin was dismissed and charged with second-degree murder, while the three other officers on the scene have also been sacked and charged with aiding and abetting a murder.

    Numerous figures from the world of sport have spoken up with demands for change and Jesus knows personally that the ravages of racism run deep.

    "Racism isn't a problem that only started in recent days and it isn't normal, so people do feel that they have had enough, and they have exploded," he said, before taking aim at what appears to be a wilful misinterpretation of the Black Lives Matter cause in some quarters.

    "I'm against violence or any sort of violent protest. I'm all in favour of peaceful protests in order to say 'no to racism' and whenever we say 'Black Lives Matter', we should also read it correctly and understand the meaning behind it.

    "We aren't saying that other lives don't matter, but we are saying that the lives of black people who feel racism matter.

    "We can’t generalise it. Not everyone is racist, the majority aren't, but lots of people are and it's like they haven't got brains.

    "So, when we use that sentence it's because we know what it is to be a victim of racism. It is painful to feel it."

    Jesus explained he was once racially abused when playing for Brazilian club Palmeiras during a Copa Libertadores tie in Uruguay – the kind of ordeal the two-time Premier League champion and Copa America winner is wearied to still see occurring frequently.

    "I have suffered a couple of times. I've managed to elevate myself [above it]," he said.

    "I'm black and I'm from a favela. I was able to learn from those experiences, but everyone reacts and feels differently and I've got my way.

    "This is a very important movement, because like I said, there is a time that people do wake up and these actions [police brutality] that we've seen lately aren't normal and they shouldn't happen.

    "Therefore there is a moment that we have to say 'enough, time to stop' and it is important to show your position on this matter and this sentence [Black Lives Matter] is very clear on how tired people have been exhausted for a while, tired of injustice.

    "Social media is very important these days, but the problem is that sometimes we don’t respect each other’s opinions or views and that can create a bigger problem or hate.

    "I know it is difficult to speak about peace, but if we were to follow our lives based on peace, it would be a lot better."

    Jesus and his City colleague will be back in action on June 17 when they host Arsenal upon the Premier League's resumption from its coronavirus shutdown.

    Despite the lay-off, the 23-year-old confirmed there has been no let up for the squad when it comes to manager Pep Guardiola's famous intensity.

    "The concept is always the same," he added, with City poised to lose their Premier League crown to Liverpool but retaining designs on adding the FA Cup and Champions League to a third consecutive EFL Cup they won in March.

    "There are one or two things that have changed, but I will not be revealing them here!

    "Pep is creative and intense, so he always has ways to make sure that the players’ fusion always works.

    "It is a tough moment in the Premier League but we still have two more trophies to fight for."

© 2020 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.