Whisper it quietly but we might just have another three-way title race in La Liga this season. Atletico’s comfortable victory over Valencia on Sunday leaves the top of the table with a strikingly familiar look to it with Barcelona and Real Madrid just 2 points clear of Los Colchoneros, who have unquestionably had the toughest opening fixtures.
You won’t catch Diego Simeone admitting to such a thing though. The Argentine spent most of last season playing down his sides chances of emulating their stunning 2014 title win instead insisting that the real battle was on to secure a top four finish with the likes of Sevilla and Valencia pushing them hard. As it turned out he was right to do that and he again made a point to state that his side would struggle to live with the big two this term in his pre-match comments for yesterday’s showdown between the sides that finished 3rd and 4th last season.
However the ease with which Atletico coped with the challenge of Valencia, not to mention their crushing 3-0 victory at Sevilla in August suggests that Atletico are undisputedly still the best of the rest and they should be setting their sights higher this season.
The foundations are certainly in place. Defensively they look as solid as ever with 20 year old José María Giménez again impressing alongside his rock solid compatriot Diego Godin in the heart of the defence. The return of Filipe Luis from just 1 season at Chelsea means 3 of their back 4 is the same as it was during the title winning campaign of 2013-14 and if anything Giménez is an upgrade on the recently departed Miranda, who lost his central defensive place to the young Uruguayan in the Second Half of last season.
With just 5 goals conceded in 9 Primera Division outings so far, it is clear that Atleti are going to be very tough to break down and when you consider those 9 games have included clashes against every other side that finished in the top six last season, they have already faced the sternest of examinations.
The big question-marks hanging over Atletico this year were always likely to be at the other end though. They spent well in excess of €100million in the summer on a host of new players but the departure of Mario Mandžukić left them without a real target man for the first time during Simeone’s hugely successful reign at the Vicente Calderon, signalling a change of style was likely.
€35milllion Jackson Martinez came with the biggest price tag and the expectation that he would fill the goal void left by the Croatian. He had enjoyed a prolific spell with Porto but plenty doubted the sense in spending so much on a 29 year old who had never previously played in a top European league. While he didn’t exactly hit the ground running, he was on target against Astana in the Champions League in midweek and coolly slotted Atleti in front against Valencia on Sunday and is showing signs of developing a dangerous strike partnership with the equally rapid Antoine Griezmann.
The pair already seem to be Simeone’s preferred strike-force, something which he never quite settled on last season. However he possesses more options to mix it up if needs be this term and the likes of Fernando Torres, Angel Correa and Luciano Vietto provide a threat from the bench and genuine competition for a starting role, which is something that Atletico have rarely had previously up front.
Another of the new signings, Yannick Ferreira Carrasco is also starting to find his feet following a €20million summer switch from Monaco. The Belgian international doubled Atletico’s lead against Valencia with a brilliant solo strike, his second in as many league matches after he netted late on in the win at Real Sociedad.
Certainly Atletico’s newcomers have settled quicker that those at Valencia, who spent a comparable amount of money over the summer months but were fortunate to leave the Vicente Calderon with only a 2-1 defeat and have only won 3 of their opening 9 La Liga matches.
This Atletico squad has a nice blend of youthful exuberance, pace and energy as well more experienced players like Godin, Filipe Luis, Tiago and Gabi, veterans of the last title winning campaign, who know what it takes to bring silverware to the Vicente Calderon.
To maintain a sustained title challenge though they will need a bit of good fortune along the way. Despite a busy summer, their squad still isn’t as big or strong as those at Real Madrid or Barcelona and a serious injury to a Godin or a Gabi would leave them short on experience in crucial areas of the pitch.
It would be a big ask for the likes of Oliver Torres and Saul, two talented 20 year olds to maintain the level of consistency that Simeone demands for a sustained period of time but an injury crisis would leave him dependent on some of the youngsters to maintain Atletico’s challenge, something that may prove difficult in a league where one poor month can derail a title bid.
Right now though things are looking good for Atleti with an almost fully fit squad and a fixture schedule that offers them the chance to really build some pressure on the big two. They will be strong favourites to win all of their remaining league fixtures in 2015 and given Champions League progress from a weak group should be a formality, they can afford to focus their energies on the league campaign.
Having got all their tough fixtures out the way early, there is no reason why Atletico can’t go into the second half of the season, neck and neck with Barcelona and Real Madrid and perhaps even ahead. Diego Simeone will do his best to publicly play down expectations but in quieter moments within the confines of the Vicente Calderon, he might just be plotting for what could be a second league title in the space of 3 seasons.