Saturday night at the San Siro was supposed to be many things. It was touted as the evening when Atletico Madrid tasted sweet revenge for their 2014 Champions League final defeat and became champions of Europe for the first time. It was supposed to be the crowning moment for an Atleti side that has been skillfully built by Diego Simeone in less than five years and had already won everything else but the continent’s biggest prize.
However as had been the case in Lisbon two years ago and in Brussels 40 years prior to that, it ended in tears, despair and plenty of soul-searching for Los Rojiblancos. That was even before Diego Simeone brought his future at the helm into doubt with his post-match comments that suggested he was considering walking away from the Vicente Calderon.
“Do I have to continue with Atletico or is it the end of a cycle? I have to think about that,” were the words uttered by el cholo just hours after his side’s penalty shootout defeat to Real Madrid at a time when Atleti fans thought their night couldn’t get any worse.
The departure of Simeone would be a devastating blow for Atleti given the magnitude of his achievements over the past few seasons. He was speaking from the heart, as he invariably does but at a time when his judgement was unquestionably clouded by great emotion. On reflection it is highly likely that he will come to his senses and see that he has far more to lose than to gain by walking away from Atletico Madrid on the mere basis of his team scoring one less penalty than their opponents.
For one he would be walking away on one of the best teams in Europe. Of course Simeone deserves great credit for assembling the side and getting the very best out of them but having done the hard work and formed a team that is incredibly tough to beat and competitive at the very pinnacle of European football, why would he walk away?
Currently Atleti are one of only a handful of teams that are genuinely capable of competing to win the Europeans Champions League. Only Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich have anything like a comparable record to them in the competition over the past three seasons. Atleti beat two of them over two legs this term and lost to the other on penalties so at the very least should be capable of mixing it with the elite again next year at the business end of the competition.
Of the other prospective challengers, Manchester City are the only English team who are likely to be serious threats next term and may move up a gear under Pep Guardiola but it could be another year or two still before they are serious contenders. French champions PSG have lost their star player already this summer and are still to make the last four while 2015 finalists Juventus could well lose theirs with Paul Pogba a potential mover over the next few months.
In short Diego Simeone is likely to get another couple of genuine opportunities to lead Atleti to that elusive European crown if he stays at the club. The side he has built has a few players the wrong side of 30 but not by much. Filipe Luis and Diego Godin have just turned 30, Juanfran is 31, while Gabi is 32 but all are likely to have at least a couple more years at the top level. During that time the likes of Saul, Griezmann, Carrasco, Koke, Oblak and Giménez, all of whom are in the 21-25 age bracket, will move into their peak years.
Holding on to those players is of course key but should be considerably easier now they are an established force in Spain and Europe and have a much larger budget than they did when they won La Liga and reached the Champions League final in 2014. If they can do that, there is no reason why Atleti won’t be extremely competitive in both competitions next season and again in 2017-18 when the club moves into their 73,000 capacity new stadium, another factor that might convince their current boss to stay put and lead it into a bright new era.
That move should help further increase their powers in the transfer market and ability to compete with Real Madrid and Barcelona on a more level playing field. However the club did embark on its biggest ever spending spree last summer, splashing out in excess of €100million on new players and given they’ve already recouped a substantial portion of that from the January sale of Jackson Martinez to Guangzhou Evergrande, we can expect them to splash some cash again over the coming months.
Perhaps Simeone’s refusal to immediately re-buff suggestions he could walk away is more a ploy to ensure that the Atleti board are forced into action in the transfer market. It is no secret that the club needs a striker and their achievements this season in reaching the Champions League final and finishing within 3 points of Spanish Champions Barcelona are all the more remarkable given their huge problems in that department.
Despite a decent ending to the season, Fernando Torres was again a shadow of his former self but was still their most used forward. Martinez, signed for big money from Porto last summer was a flop in La Liga, while Luciano Vietto, who also cost €20million netted just one goal in the league.
With a genuinely top class striker, something they have invariably had over the past decade, Atleti would almost certainly have won La Liga and may well have added the Champions League to that. They have been in many respects the best all-round team in Europe over the past 12 months but in years gone by they’ve had the likes of Diego Costa, Falcao, Diego Forlan and Sergio Aguero leading the line and any of the quartet, who were all big hits at the Vicente Calderon would have provided the cutting edge that was lacking in the final third.
If Atleti can either convince Diego Costa to return as they are said to be keen on doing or add another prolific striker to their ranks then it’s not unreasonable to suggest that they are still to peak as a force under Diego Simeone.
Despite the drama of the last few days, the summer should be a relatively simple one at the Vicente Calderon with no widespread renovation needed. Atleti need to buy a striker who is going to guarantee goals and keep hold of their current core group of players. If both targets are met and with Simeone’s future in doubt, Atleti should go all out to make sure they are, then el cholo would have the best team he’s had during his four and a half years at the club to work with next term.
His alternative option is to leave the club, which may very well mean he would have to wait 12 months for another top job to become available and even then it is highly unlikely to be at a club in a position to immediately challenge for European glory, something he has at Atleti. He would in essence have to start from scratch and build another side capable of challenging the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern.
Although Diego Simeone has made that look like a relatively easy process during his time in the Spanish capital, it most certainly is not and there is no guarantee he could repeat the feat elsewhere. Atleti and el cholo are the perfect match and the fact that reaching a Champions League final and losing on penalties is now looked upon as a failure, is testament to how far they’ve come together and with all the foundations in place, now is surely not the time to go their separate ways.