As impressive in the UEFA Champions League as they have been in the Liga, Club Atlético de Madrid have emerged as genuine contenders – next up are AC Milan.
An almost predictable knack for shooting themselves in the foot earned Club Atlético de Madrid the unwanted nickname of 'El Pupas' (Jinxed), a moniker they had been burdened with ever since their 1974 European Champion Clubs' Cup final defeat by FC Bayern München. However, the recent success that continued with the arrival of coach Diego Simeone has led to a dramatic reappraisal of a team with serious designs on UEFA Champions League glory this season.
Story so far
"Tactically perfect, focused and with a lot of character; that was Diego Simeone as a player and it's exactly how his team are now." Those were the words of Carlo Ancelotti, coach of Atlético's city rivals Real Madrid CF. All of those strengths were on show as the side from the banks of the river Manzanares won a potentially stubborn Group G with two games to spare.
Atlético suffered a few scares in their opener against FC Zenit, who briefly took control following Hulk's ferocious equaliser at the Vicente Calderón, but the 2010 and 2012 UEFA Europa League winners regained their composure to start the campaign with a 3-1 success. Then, following victory at FC Porto, they welcomed back previously suspended striker Diego Costa, who netted three times in two comprehensive triumphs against FK Austria Wien to ensure qualification.
Porto had eliminated the Rojiblancos from the 2008/09 UEFA Champions League round of 16 and inflicted two group-stage losses on the capital club the next season to end Atlético's hopes once again. So, when Jackson Martínez fired the Portuguese champions in front at the Estádio do Dragão on matchday two, the omens did not look good for the visitors. Diego Godín's second-half equaliser and Arda Turan's winner four minutes from time, however, helped Atlético triumph at a ground where Porto enjoyed a 100% UEFA Champions League record last term.
Key player: Raúl García
His Atlético career somewhat in doubt before the start of the season, midfielder Raúl García has developed into one of the UEFA Champions League's most consistent performers. A scorer of three goals in six appearances, the 27-year-old was also voted UEFA.com's Player Rater winner in three successive group stage games. "He's an example for the rest of the dressing room to follow," Simeone recently said of the Pamplona native.
Rising star: Óliver Torres
Óliver Torres's failure to emulate the progress of his 2012 UEFA European Under-19 Championship-winning team-mates Gerard Deulofeu – on loan at Everton FC from FC Barcelona – and Real Madrid CF's Jesé, prompted Simeone to admit "we expected more from him" before Atlético's final group fixture against Porto. The midfielder duly responded with an admirable performance capped by a defence-splitting pass for Diego Costa to score the second goal in a 2-0 win.
Despite guaranteeing themselves top spot in Group G after just four matches, Atlético produced a draw and a victory in their concluding games to remain unbeaten and finish ten points clear of Zenit in second.
"We are on a good run in the league and in the UEFA Champions League, but we cannot fall asleep. We have to continue to take things on a game-by-game basis."
Simeone's pragmatic approach has so far reaped reward.
Next challenge: AC Milan
(Away: 19 February, home: 11 March)
Whatever Milan's domestic travails of recent months, the talk emanating from the Atlético camp points to a group wary of a European giant that has displayed solid continental form so far. The Liga challengers face crucial domestic fixtures around the Milan tie which will test the resolve of a squad fully committed to competing on three fronts.