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Tuesday’s 1-1 draw with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge condemned Atletico Madrid, many people’s favourites to reach at least the last four of the Champions League, to a post-January place in the Europa League.
Diego Simeone’s charges endured a torrid continental campaign this term with failure to beat Qarabag on two separate occasions ultimately costing the team. However, the Argentine coach remains as committed as ever to the Madrid club and there is a sense that this failure is actually the beginning of a brand new cycle at the Estadio Wanda Metropolitano.
The summer of 2017 is one of missed opportunity for Los Colchoneros; the transfer ban imposed upon them prevented the club from embarking on pre-arranged plans.
Alexandre Lacazette had all but joined the club barring the official signatures, Antoine Griezmann was set to leave for Manchester United and there were also plans afoot for the club to rejuvenate an ageing midfield, especially with captain Gabi having less influence on matches.
None of the signings were possible, Lacazette wasn’t willing to wait a further six months after he had already said an emotional and long-awaited farewell to Lyon supporters, he left for Arsenal whilst a clearly unsettled Griezmann remained at the club but has looked a shadow of his former self for the majority of the campaign.
Vitolo and Diego Costa have though been signed and will join up with the team in January, Simeone is a huge fan of Costa’s style of play and he will help take the team in a more physically domineering direction, one which can bully opposing teams.
There have been suggestions that Atletico had gone too soft in the last two seasons, veering from what made them such an attraction under the former River Plate coach in the first place.
Simeone took all the headlines last season when it emerged his contract length had been cut from June 2020 down to June 2018, all signs pointed towards him engineering an exit from the club, especially with the Internazionale hot-seat being perennially available following several disastrous appointments.
Yet in December of 2017, this couldn’t be less of a possibility, the Italian giants are now sitting comfortably with Luciano Spalletti overseeing the club’s best start to a domestic season since the Jose Mourinho era, whilst Simeone has extended his contract in the Spanish capital to June 2020.
Despite the club’s poor fortunes both domestically and in Europe this season, he has looked as energised and enthusiastic as ever.
Gone is the shadow that loomed over him following the second Champions League final loss to Real Madrid, in its place is a real sense of purpose about Simeone, visibly evident on the touchline and it is expected that the next summer transfer window will be one where he can really begin to build his next great team.
Griezmann will almost certainly leave in the summer for £89 million and that injection of cash will be of great benefit to the club. Now the market for the Frenchman is far wider than previously thought due to the vast inflation of the market.
If Barcelona were paying more than £89 million up front for Ousmane Dembele, then signing a proven world class star for that figure without any chance of a bidding war due to the buy-out clause is an attractive prospect for many clubs.
Bayern Munich, Chelsea and Manchester United are all expected to fight it out for the Macon born forward’s signature in the summer.
Chances of success this season are slim; the Europa League presents an opportunity as Los Rojiblancos will be the best team in the competition by some distance; however a domestic title challenge seems unlikely due to the lack of consistency shown thus far.
There are blocks upon which to build for El Cholo however.
Saul Niguez is showing all the signs that his upward development will continue and he will soon be seen as one of the genuine best all-round midfielders in the game, whilst youngsters such as Thomas Partey, Angel Correa and Lucas Hernandez are all getting valuable minutes and are improving constantly ahead of forming the spine of the next Atletico Madrid team.
An energised Simeone is an incredibly effective coach; the 47-year-old loves managerial challenges.
He has shown he can build a successful team and he now must do so yet again, Costa’s arrival will help him set the tone whilst the summer will be the chance to regroup that he missed out on in 2017.
It is understood that Atletico do not have the fiscal might to challenge Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City or even Real Madrid, especially not with the new stadium needing to be paid for. Yet, funds are available to use and Simeone has on the whole used them sensibly.
Deadwood such as Nico Gaitan will be sold whilst unsettled first-teamers like Sime Vrsaljko will also move on.
The aim now is to finish a disappointing season strongly, perhaps even winning the Europa League, yet the real work starts in the summer and an extremely motivated coach will oversee it, something that can only bring positive results.
Written by Chris Winterburn
Follow Chris on Twitter @cmwinterburn
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