Atletico Madrid are through to the Europa League final later this month – their fifth major European final since May 2010.
Four of those have arrived under the management of Diego Simeone and, just like the others, their passage through to the showpiece in Lyon was a triumph of defensive strength.
It was telling that whilst Arsenal played reasonably well, despite having a lack of conviction at both ends of the pitch, Atletico’s progression to the final rarely felt in serious jeopardy.
This was despite a ninth-minute red card for full-back Sime Vrsaljko in the first leg and subsequent dismissal of Simeone to the stands.
The North London side had their tails up and many opponents may have wilted in such circumstances yet Atletico stood firm.
Their draw at the Emirates had an element of good fortune, of great goalkeeping and of calamitous defending from the home side.
But it put them at an advantage going into the second leg which, after Diego Costa gave them the lead in the tie just before the break, put them firmly on the right path.
The capital of European football
Madrid is now the true capital of European football – teams from the Spanish capital have won 26 of their 27 knockout ties against sides from other cities in a run spanning the past four seasons.
Only Juventus have defeated Real Madrid (once) while Atleti have only fallen to their city neighbours, although this event occurred in four consecutive seasons.
Simeone’s side have only the 15th largest wage budget in European football yet their consistent performance and overachievement defies this. Alongside Real, Juve, Bayern Munich and Barcelona they are truly part of European football’s elite.
A shock group stage elimination – a tough group coupled with their worst run of form in five years – was hugely disappointing yet it gave birth to an attitude and defiance that they would bounce back with the Europa League title.
They have not conceded a home goal in twelve matches – Girona forward Portu was the last to breach their defence at the Wanda Metropolitano, on January 20th – while they have yielded just four home league goals in 17 outings.
Arsenal joined FC Copenhagen, Lokomotiv Moscow and Sporting CP in being unable to break down the wall.
Organised by the inspirational and perennially underrated Diego Godin with the ‘octopus’ Slovenian goalkeeper Jan Oblak, there are few defences as solid as Atleti’s.
This is a club who have lived in the shadow of their city rivals and that of Barca’s and as such, know they must fight and scrap in every match, in every competition.
A team of winners
It is immaterial if this was the Champions League or Europa League – this is a team of winners, who not only know how to get their hands dirty but thrive upon such a requirement.
They will often resort to the dark arts in an attempt to infuriate opponents and wind-up referees. Yet this is not ill-discipline nor barbaric, they know how to tread a fine-line, even if on occasion – as in Vrsaljko’s case – it is punished.
The celebrations around the stadium at the final whistle – led by Simeone, banished to the stands, whipping a scarf around his head in jubilation – would not have been out of place for a side who had just won the Champions League.
Atletico, just like their city neighbours, exist to win even if they do so in very different styles.
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