Four seasons ago, Atletico Madrid pulled off the impossible. At the height of the Barcelona-Real Madrid duopoly, the club that prides itself on being that of the people, crashed the elite. Diego Simeone’s side upset the established order, leading his men, all gnarly and street-smart, to the 2013/14 La Liga.
With that triumph the Spanish football landscape fundamentally changed. A precedent was set, one that said to the rest of La Liga that Barcelona and Real Madrid could be overturned. Of course, since then the Clasico pair have shared four league championships, with Barca winning the past four Copa del Rey titles too, but the example of Atleti’s upset remains.
While the best that the rest could hope for was, not so long ago, a third place finish behind the usual suspects, now there is a belief that, at the very least, Barcelona and Real Madrid can be split. Last season, Sevilla went half the campaign sitting top of the table before eventually falling away. This season, Atletico and Valencia are making a play to be Spain’s force, and the two teams will meet this Sunday.
This is a compelling clash for a number of reasons. Atletico Madrid spent the first half of the season in transition, acclimatising to their new surroundings at the Wanda Metropolitano while grappling with a transfer embargo. It’s only now that the capital club appear to be finding their way again, fronted by an irrepressible Diego Costa determined to replicate the impact he made in his first spell at Atleti.
Valencia are also emerging from their own strife, with Marcelino finally getting the club back on the straight and narrow after years of sacking managers and unfulfilling potential. For a time it looked like they might even challenge Barcelona for the title, although with a 11-point gap now between the two sides second place might be the best Marcelino can hope for.
Both Atletico and Valencia find themselves at a critical juncture in their respective recent histories, but are they on contrasting sides of the same narrative? Will Atleti ever again reach the heights of a few years ago? Are Valencia on course for an almighty upset of their own at some point in the near future?
This weekend’s meeting between the two clubs will give a clearer indication of the direction the two teams are headed in. Consistency has been an issue for Atletico Madrid this season, with Simeone’s side still to truly make the Wanda Metropolitano their home in the same way the Vicente Calderon was. Valencia can exploit that in the same way Sevilla did in the Copa del Rey last week.
Atletico in the Simeone era are not familiar to the feeling of being effectively out of all three competitions at this time of the year, and so Valencia will come up against a team in a state of fragility. There are still suggestions that Simeone could leave Atleti at the end of the season, with Chelsea and Inter Milan both speculated as potential destinations for the Argentine.
On the flip side, Valencia haven’t felt so strong, so fortified as a side since the days of Rafa Benitez. Much like Atletico Madrid, there is a sense that their success is down to just one man, their manager. Should Marcelino leave it’s entirely feasible that Valencia could revert to their default of the past few years.
This is something that links the two teams. At present, their status feels intrinsically linked to the men who occupy their dugouts. They must find a way to make sure their current positions stick in the long term. Spanish football, at least at the top level, isn’t as two dimensional as it was just a few years ago. Now it’s four, or more, dimensional.
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