A visit to the Vicente Calderon used to feel like a visit to another era. A swaying, seething cauldron, the stadium became something of a relic in its latter years, explaining why Atletico Madrid felt the need to make the move to the state-of-the-art Metropolitano last summer. But in that crumbling, old ground, Atleti held something of an advantage.
It was an advantage that fortified them as a team away from home, as if they drew strength from the Vicente Calderon on the road, wherever they were. That advantage has now been lost. Of course, Atletico Madrid are much better off at the 67,000-capacity Metropolitano out by the city’s Barajas Airport. Yet there is a question of identity to be posed.
Diego Simeone’s side are enjoying a relatively successful season, despite their exit at the group stages of the Champions League, but something feels different. The move to the Metropolitano last year has changed the character of the club as a whole. At the very least, it has proved a catalyst for something rather fundamental.
Atletico Madrid have grown accustomed to the luxury bathroom fittings and comfy seats at their new ground this season. They will turn up to the Santiago Bernabeu on Sunday, look around and see a stadium that is now beneath their own. Atletico Madrid once revelled in their status as the antithesis of their more illustrious, glamorous rivals. They were the epitome of Spanish football’s counter culture. Now, it’s more difficult to make the case for that.
Atleti will retain their spirit as a team as long as Simeone is at the club, but in the wider sense, now they are the same as every other elite outfit. Their new stadium is testament to that. The club’s hierarchy might view that to be a good thing. After all, the intention behind the move to the Metropolitano was to ensure Atletico Madrid could compete at a higher level, financially.
With Atleti facing Real Madrid this weekend, Simeone and his team have the chance to tighten their grip on second place. At present, Atletico Madrid are Spanish football’s second force. It might be almost four years since they finished top of the pile in La Liga, but never before has this rivalry between the two Madrid sides been so well-matched, on and off the pitch.
In the dugout, on the pitch, in the stands, in the transfer market… Atletico Madrid can now go toe-to-toe with Real Madrid. This is a rivalry that now stands alongside some of the very best European football has to offer, even El Clasico. This weekend will offer up another episode in this unfolding epic.
This summer could prove to be a watershed in Atletico Madrid’s recent history. Their best player and talisman Antoine Griezmann is expected to leave to join Barcelona, leaving a gaping void in their team. But if Atleti respond in the way many expect them to, making a mega money deal of their own (Paulo Dybala has been mentioned as a potential target), they will be the quintessential Big Club.
They might already be there. It took close to £60 million to lure Diego Costa back to the club, with Atleti spending £200 million in the transfer market over the past two years. They still make good use of their extensive scouting system which time and time again unearths world class talents, but they can also offer the big bucks for the big names. That’s the difference between the Atleti of old and the Atleti of new.
Of course, Real Madrid still have the bigger names and the bigger bucks. They are on course for an unprecedented third success Champions League title, so any Atletico victory this weekend must be placed in context. Real Madrid are still the establishment, the city’s footballing powerhouse. But Atletico Madrid aren’t far off that themselves.
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