Atletico Madrid are well known for lying in wait. In the last five seasons, the Rojiblancos have finished second or third in La Liga – often on an equal footing with city rivals Real and Barcelona but frequently just on their tails. So it is no great surprise that Diego Simeone's team are in a familiar position after nine games: in fourth place behind the two heavyweights of world football – two points behind Real in second and three points behind league leaders Barca. At the same time, they have missed out at home on moving up the table in recent weeks. There have been three draws in succession at the Wanda Metropolitano – including most recently a 1-1 draw with Valencia. In the Champions League, the Spanish side secured a valuable point in the opening game against Juventus: After being two goals down, Atletico hit back from two set-pieces to equalise in the final minute. The 2-0 away win at Lokomotiv Moscow puts Atletico in second place in Group D behind Juve with a worse goal difference of one.
The changes were massive: Simeone lost two of probably the most crucial players of the past enormously successful years at the club in star striker Antoine Griezmann and key defender Diego Godín. However, there was one player whose departure hurt the charismatic head coach even more. "The transfer that hits us hardest is Lucas Hernández," declared Simeone recently in a radio interview. The French defender, who won the World Cup in 2018 along with Griezmann, is now playing for FC Bayern in the Bundesliga after being an absolute first choice in the incredibly strong Atletico defence. The upheaval at the 'Colchoneros' in the summer was probably bigger than at any other top European club, with the departure of top quality players being countered by activity on the transfer market – above all with the signing of João Félix. The 19-year-old Portuguese is one of the most expensive players of all time. The highly talented youngster is one of the closest competitors for Kai Havertz in the race for the Golden Boy Award organised by the Italian sports journal Tuttosport. Félix is now supposed to follow in the huge footsteps of Griezmann – and the start has been promising: The young, star dribbler is the top scorer for Atletico this season with three goals to date – although he is mostly played on the wing in contrast to Griezmann. There were worries about the tricky new signing after the Valencia game. João Félix went off due to an ankle injury with ten minutes to play in the 1-1 draw.
There may have been a large turnover in personnel but the style of play remains the same: The trademark for Atletico under Simeone is an almost impenetrable defence. In spite of the loss of Godín and Hernández, the Rojiblancos have not conceded in six out of eight games. Although that has had an effect up front: The Madrid side have drawn 0-0 in three games and the loss of one of the best strikers in the world certainly hasn't helped. The regular strike partnership of Álvaro Morata (new signing from Chelsea) and Diego Costa is suffering due to the defensive style of play: The duo have only scored three goals this season in total. Against the Werkself, Simeone will have to manage without an important part of the jigsaw in his so impressive defence: The regular central defender Stefan Savic has returned from international duty with Montenegro with a muscle injury and is currently sidelined.
Hardly any other of the top teams in Europe have had the same playing philosophy for years as Atletico have. That gives the team a chance of winning against any opposition – and that proves Simeone right with winning the league title in 2014 plus two Champions League final appearances. Atletico, often eclipsed by Real and Barcelona, have now moved into a different financial sphere with the signing of João Félix. That demonstrates the Rojiblancos have joined the ranks of the top clubs in world football – and contrary to other predictions – will probably play an important role for a long time.
In spite of all the changes in personnel: Atletico are almost guaranteed finishing in the top three in Spain. And qualifying for the Champions League again this season should not be too much of a problem given the continuing strength of the squad – even though the challenge for a second league title win under Simeone is a tough proposition. But Atletico are once again in the running to win the Champions League: If the team go through the group stage then nobody will want to play them in the knockout rounds. As the past has shown, the Madrid side can go very far if all goes to plan.
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