The club presidents may not be on speaking terms right now, but Jeremy Beren and I are still friends! Jeremy is the site manager of Into the Calderón, our sister blog that covers Atletico Madrid, and we were delighted when it became part of SB Nation’s La Liga group of blogs. You can check them out here: https://www.intothecalderon.com/
For those of you who have only been following La Liga for the last 10 years or so, you may not remember that during the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, Atleti were hardly the force they are now, even spending two years (2000-2002) in the second division. But with 6 straight top-three finishes, three Europa League titles, and playing at their new 68,000 seat stadium, Atleti are truly in a golden era under Diego Simeone, coach since 2011. I asked Jeremy how things were looking so far this year.
Q: The move to the new stadium was not without controversy. Are the fans now OK with it given how well the team is doing there?
A: There always will be a vocal segment of supporters who yearn for the “old days” at the Calderon. Not coincidentally, these are also the same fans who despise the new badge and what it represents, who hold a 30-year-old grudge against Hugo Sanchez and so on. But the stadium has done so far exactly what Atletico hoped it would do -- it’s hosted huge games (not including the upcoming Champions League final on June 1), it’s increased revenue, it’s made the club more marketable and offered more exposure than the Calderón ever could. The droves of newer fans the club has brought in have made the stadium worth it, basically -- and those are the fans who by and large love this stadium. But Atleti have gone to great lengths to maintain and show off its history -- none more visible than the Legends Walk outside the stadium which honors anyone who’s played over 100 games in red and white.
Q: It seemed for a time last year Cholo Simeone might have been thinking about life after Atleti. Is he back to being his fully committed, frightening all-in-black touchline figure self again?
A: He is, but there will always loom the prospect of his departure until the day it happens. Cholo has a contract through next season, and it feels like the only jobs he’ll leave for are the Argentina gig or Inter Milan. We’ll see where those respective institutions are in 12-18 months.
Q: What does this team prioritize this season? It sure seems as though La Liga will be up for grabs, and the Champions league as well.
A: It’s an interesting question because I really think both trophies are attainable. Right now it appears as if LaLiga could be an 80-85 point league this season — and that suits Atlético much more than if this reverts to a 85-90 point league. However, Atleti have played their best football this season in Europe and they’re hosting the Champions League final. As in past seasons, Simeone and his players have been pretty open about winning the big-eared trophy -- if it comes down to it, I think they’ll prioritize the UCL.
Q: Which player or players are the most important for Atleti this season—the ones that have to stay healthy to win the league? Griezmann? Oblak? Godin? Or someone young like Rodri?
A: Griezmann and Oblak without doubt have to stay fit if this team is to challenge for silverware. Diego Costa has become Griezmann’s “enabler” (jury’s out on how happy he is in that role) and he needs to be engaged, too. Rodri has also become increasingly key as the midfield anchor Atleti have lacked -- he looks to have nailed down a spot in the XI after being in and out of the team in the first few weeks.
Q: Atleti’s “anti-football” hasn’t worked well against Villarreal the last few years, either home or away. That’s surprising to me, given how much more physical a team Atleti is. Why do you think this has been such a difficult matchup for the rojiblancos?
A: When Marcelino was in charge it was pretty understandable why Atlético’s games against Villarreal were a slog. But Atleti keep struggling in this fixture because...well, it’s hard to explain. Villarreal usually have a pretty talented squad with really dangerous forwards, and I’ve noticed that they always set up well defensively in this fixture -- they’re able to soak up pressure a bit better than other sides who sit back and bunker against the rojiblancos.
Q: And your prediction for the scoreline?
A: Atlético may not play well in this stadium, but they do play well immediately after the international break in most cases. I’ll pick Atleti to win 2-0 and I’ll likely regret it. (NB—I went for a 1-1 draw; I’m pretty confident one goal is all we’ll get against Atleti, if that).