“On Wednesday we have a very difficult game,” Diego Simeone admitted in his pre-match press conference, before immediately switching back to his usual gear. “Impossible for many, but not for us. Nothing is impossible.”
If Adidas have taken the reverse of that phrase, made famous by Muhammad Ali, and turned it into a marketing slogan, Simeone’s team are football’s most famous fighters against the odds. When Raphael Varane fouled Fernando Torres after 15 minutes and Antoine Griezmann’s penalty bundled past Keylor Navas, two-thirds of Real Madrid’s first-leg lead had been evaporated in a flash. The Vicente Calderon, hosting European football for the last time, was a cacophony of noise. And then Isco scored.
This always felt like a forlorn dream. Barcelona may have completed one of the most remarkable European comebacks already this season, but Spain was not to witness another. When Karim Benzema, so often maligned and even lambasted, produces a skill as magical as that, it’s easy to conclude that Real Madrid are simply too good to let three-goal leads slip.
After all, this is the lasting legacy of this Atletico Madrid generation in the Champions League – getting close to glory before their big brothers from across town come along and ruin it. Nine of Real Madrid’s team were given the weekend off, a luxury that Simeone does not have. Such is the strength in depth and improvement in morale under Zinedine Zidane, Real’s second team hardly feels like a weakened one.
On occasions such as these, ties between two teams without connections to English football, we are supposed to be able to watch on as starry-eyed neutrals, yet these are actually the matches that produce more partisan feelings than most. This is hardly the brash, gold-plated Real Madrid squad of the Galactico era, with only Sergio Ramos and Cristiano Ronaldo attracting any form of dislike, but it was impossible not to side with Atleti. How could you not?
Part of that inherent bias is because this does feel like the final act, at least for this cast. Most previews for the game focused on the uncertainty within and surrounding Simeone and his squad, and this whole season has felt like a bubbling denouement. There has been a lack of focus in big games, and even a sense that the famous Atleti defence is not at its mighty, impenetrable best. The performance in the Bernabeu last week was a 90-minute epilogue to a passing era.
On Tuesday evening, Sarah Winterburn wrote about Monaco’s young players being picked off like ducklings in the springtime, so I’ll stick with the ornithological analogies. Simeone’s team are a lot further developed than Monaco and closer to European football’s established elite, but the vultures are still circling.
At the latest count, Atletico’s revenue was €228.6m, up three places from 16th in Europe the previous season, but still behind six Premier League teams (and €50m less than Tottenham). Closest to Atletico in revenue terms are Schalke, currently tenth in the Bundesliga. Do not let familiarity breed contempt: this has been an astonishing period of over-achievement.
Left-back Theo Hernandez has already reportedly signed for Real, while the rumours about Antoine Griezmann are set to continue throughout the summer. Saul Niguez, Jose Gimenez and Jan Oblak are three players aged 24 or under that will grace gossip columns across Europe. With Atletico’s ban on registering new players still to be rescinded, they face a difficult summer.
Yet it is Simeone himself who is the crucial cog in this machine. Having already intimated that he will leave at the end of next season, the availability of the Inter job following the sacking of Stefano Pioli will only fan the flames. The suspicion is that Simeone is aware of the importance of leaving before his reputation becomes tarnished; the departure of key players would hardly persuade him to stay.
And then there’s the Vicente Calderon itself, this atmospheric old stadium that will be replaced by the Wanda Metropolitano and turned into a park. This footballing nerve centre, with its club bar in the stand and the dark museum with its tributes to heroes past and present. The Calderon; the cauldron. The bricks and mortar of this club are being dismantled. The fight is to ensure that is a literal rather than metaphorical reality.
The feeling of resentment and regret as Atletico again fell to their rivals in this competition is not based purely on a romanticised notion of what football should be, but a very real concern for what happens next to this club. Over the last five years, they have been an incredible story to witness.
The finances of football may have forever warped the story so that David takes on Goliath wearing a gold watch and designer suit, but Atletico stole hearts as the smallest of the big guys. Their decline is another reminder that you can only suspend reality temporarily, and only hold back the sea until a tidal wave sweeps you away.