It was the dream start to the new season for Atletico Madrid as they claimed a 4-2 victory over city rivals Real to lift the UEFA Super Cup in Tallinn on Wednesday night. In an action-packed game of defensive errors and great goals, los rojiblancos emerged victorious in Extra Time to win their seventh trophy under boss Diego Simeone’s rule.
While cynics will say that it’s typical of Atleti to beat Real when it doesn’t really matter, the omens are certainly positive heading into the new season. On Wednesday’s evidence they stand every chance of finishing above Real Madrid in La Liga again and they are certainly better equipped to mount a challenge at home and abroad than they were this time twelve months ago.
Read more: La Liga Season Outright Predictions
A good summer in the transfer market
There was actually a fair amount of gloom heading into the summer in the red and white half of Madrid. Rumours flew around suggesting that they would need to sell star assets to help pay for their expensive new home while Antoine Griezmann’s impending move to Barcelona was the worst kept secret in Spanish football.
The signing of Thomas Lemar from Monaco for around £60 million soon after the end of last term at least proved that funds were there to spend but he was largely seen as the man who could fill the void left by Griezmann. However when Griezmann performed a dramatic U-turn, announcing his decision to stay at Atleti in a ridiculous 30-minute documentary on Spanish TV, it soon became apparent that Simeone would still be able to call upon his talisman this term and the emerging Griezmann-Costa partnership would now have time to flourish.
The good news didn’t stop there with other key players such as Diego Godin and Jan Oblak staying put despite Premier League interest. The departure of Šime Vrsaljko to Inter was a slightly baffling one given he’d appeared to have nailed down the right-back berth at the Wanda but may merely prove to be a poor career move on his part rather than a crushing blow to Atleti’s development.
Other players have also come in to bolster a squad that was looking a little thin at the back end of last season, with Villarreal midfielder Rodri the most notable signing and somebody who appears well suited to act as the long-term successor to Gabi, a key figure in their 2013-14 title win.
Closing the Gap to Barcelona
Unquestionably Atletico Madrid are in a stronger position to challenge in La Liga this season. The likes of Diego Costa and Vitolo will benefit from having had a full pre-season after Atleti’s transfer embargo prevented them playing until January last term and certainly their UEFA Super Cup win will only increase their confidence levels. However for all the positivity, there is still the small matter of trying to catch a Barcelona side who won the title by 14 points last term and didn’t lose until the penultimate weekend, by which time they’d long since won the league.
The Spanish top flight is essentially a 90-point division and has been for close to a decade now. Over the last nine seasons, the lowest points tally of a champion was the 90 accumulated by Atleti when they were surprise title winners in 2013-14. Four times during that period, the title has been won by teams with 96 or more points and that puts in some perspective the leap Atleti need to make from last season when although they finished above Real Madrid, their tally of 79 points was well short of a title-challenging figure.
There is no real reason to expect Barcelona to be weaker this term and it’s hard to see Los Blancos being so bad again, which means Atleti need to improve in key areas if they are to be genuine contenders.
Read more: Barcelona vs Alaves Predictions
What Atleti need to do better to challenge for La Liga
— Lucas Hernández (@LucasHernandez) August 16, 2018
The most obvious need for improvement is more goals. Last season Atletico Madrid scored fewer goals than Real Sociedad who finished 12th and Celta Vigo who finished 13th. They netted 31 fewer goals than Barcelona and while their defence was again the cream of the crop, there were too many matches where they couldn’t find the vital breakthrough.
The good news is there is reason why Atleti should be better in front of goal this term. Diego Costa has come back looking hungry. He only netted 3 times in La Liga after his January introduction but he is capable of a far better return than that and Atleti will need him to get close to the 27 goal tally he managed during that famous title-winning campaign five years ago.
His hold-up play and general nuisance factor should also given Antoine Griezmann more space to play in and while the Frenchman has been a brilliant player for the club, you sense they may need him to step up further and become Atleti’s version of Leo Messi with the goal and assists figures to match.
Diego Simeone spoke frequently last season about his belief that there is very little to choose between his team and Barcelona besides the genius of Messi, who frequently won matches almost single-handedly for his team. Griezmann is arguably the only player left in the league who is capable of standing up and performing on a similar level to the Argentine and Atletico Madrid will need him to do that on a more consistent basis if they are to seriously push Barcelona over a 38-game season.
Champions League Final at the Wanda – Atleti’s date with destiny?
Good morning AtléticoFans!
Reminder that we will host the Champions League final 2019! pic.twitter.com/88LLxVMYw1
— AtléticoFans (@AtleticoFans) September 22, 2017
It may only be August but already Atletico Madrid fans have Saturday 1st June 2019 pencilled in their diaries. That may seem a little bold for a team that failed to even get out of their group in the competition last term but Diego Simeone’s men believe they have unfinished business in the Champions League and with the Final taking place in their own stadium this season, they have a chance to banish the ghost of those agonising defeats in Lisbon and Milan.
Their opponents on those two occasions were of course Real Madrid and you certainly wouldn’t rule out yet another Madrid derby European Final in the Spanish capital nine months from now. Obviously there is an enormous amount of football to be played before then but it won’t stop fans of either club from looking ahead.
As a result, Atleti will certainly be placing a major emphasis on the Champions League this season, so they will need their fringe players to contribute and their new signings to settle quickly if they are to maintain a challenge on more than one front.
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