“It’s time to hold on and be strong,” said Diego Simeone. It was, more than anything, a plea to Atletico Madrid’s fans to not lose faith, to not give up on his side. Four games had been played and already pessimism had set in. It was understandable.
When Atletico drew against Eibar at home in mid-September, they had recorded just one win from their opening four matches. They had drawn two and lost one: a 2-0 defeat away at Celta Vigo. They were already seven points behind Barcelona, and five behind Real Madrid.
Such an inauspicious start was made worse by the optimism that had surrounded the club in the build-up to the new season. The settled nature of the team, the new additions and a strong end to the previous campaign meant that many considered Atletico the favourites to win La Liga this time around.
The beginning of the season, though, suggested it would be between Barcelona and Real Madrid. Atletico were unconvincing, hesitant. They were very nearly beaten by Eibar, and whistles of discontent rang out at the Wanda Metropolitano.
Now, though, in just a few weeks, the outlook has changed. Atletico recorded back-to-back wins, against Getafe and Huesca, and held Real Madrid to a goalless draw at the Bernabeu. In each of those victories, they kept a clean sheet. The resoluteness that has defined Simeone’s side for so long seems to have returned.
Most importantly, Atletico are now just two points behind both Barcelona and Real Madrid. That is, in large part, due to their conspicuous deficiencies: over the course of a week, Ernesto Valverde’s Barcelona were beaten away by bottom side Leganes and held to draws at home by Girona and Athletic Club. Real Madrid, meanwhile, were beaten emphatically in Seville.
This bodes well for Atletico. In previous seasons, they would by now have been left trailing in the dust of the league leaders. They have, after all, dropped nine points over seven games. It is fortunate for Simeone and his players that their rivals have been equally inconsistent.
Atletico will be aware, too, that a significant improvement is needed. They have just about kept in touch at the top, but even when Barcelona and Real Madrid are unusually poor complacency cannot be afforded.
The top clubs in La Liga this season appear to have been caught off guard. As Sid Lowe points out in a recent piece for the Guardian, the gap from the top to the bottom, while “still vast”, might be slowly decreasing. It is, despite some preconceptions, a highly competitive division, and that has been in evidence so far this year.
If the title race becomes a dogfight, a scrap, Atletico might expect to prevail. Any early rustiness appears now to have been overcome. And unlike their rivals, there have been no truly calamitous defeats.
There are, of course, still things to work on. A lack of fluidity in attack has proved a hindrance thus far, and Simeone will know that more goals are required. His side have scored just eight in seven matches, ten fewer than Barcelona.
There should be more to come, too, from the likes of Antoine Griezmann, Diego Costa and Thomas Lemar.
The widespread despair following the first few weeks of the season, then, is likely to be remembered as an overreaction. If Atletico were going to get a bad run of form out of the way, that was the time to do it.
There is still a long way to go, and La Liga, evidently, will not be decided within the opening weeks of the season.
“We do not compare ourselves to Madrid or Barcelona,” Simeone said after last weekend’s draw at the Bernabeu. “We compare ourselves with the best Atletico teams in history, which this team can be.”
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