Another chance for Atletico Madrid to break Barca-Real monopoly

It has been so near and yet so far for Atletico, but today’s home game with Barcelona could well mark their breakthrough moment, writes Andy Mitten.

Diego Simeone has endeared himself to the Atletico Madrid fans and is seen by players as someone who can achieve the status of Sir Alex Ferguson. Pierre-Phillip Marcou / AFP
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It has been so near and yet so far for Atletico, but today’s home game with Barcelona could well mark their arrival, writes Andy Mitten

Atletico Madrid released a small batch of half-season tickets this week. Given that they have won all nine of their home league games, plus three Uefa Champions League matches, there is mild surprise that they still had season tickets to sell.

Atletico’s attendances have averaged 45,445 in their 54,000-capacity home this season, 1,000 up on last term and they have yet to play Barcelona and Real Madrid – two guaranteed full houses. The advertised tickets for the rest of the season included both of those games so it was no surprise they quickly sold out.

Tonight’s game between Atletico and Barcelona is the biggest in world football so far this season.

Spain’s leading two sit five points clear of Real Madrid, having both won 16, drawn one and lost one of their 18 league matches. The only time Atletico did not win at home was in August’s bruising, enthralling Super Cup tie against Barcelona. They drew the away leg too, losing the cup on away goals.

Players such as former Barca forward David Villa do believe they should have won and are feeling vengeful.

Atletico have been here before.

A year ago they were seven points ahead of Real Madrid in January but finished below them.

In December 2012, they were second in the table when they went to Camp Nou. Barcelona swatted them aside in a 4-1 victory.

Diego Simeone’s side were not ready to properly challenge the big two and mount a serious title challenge. Despite having revenues a fifth of their size and also selling their leading goalscorer Radamel Falcao, they are now.

The last year has seen Atletico beat Real Madrid twice. Previously, they had not won this century.

Tonight’s game is another huge test, but can they withstand the pressure?

Atletico were rank outsiders to win the league at the start of the season. Their chances have improved hugely. They have successfully cast off the “Pupas” tag of failing when it really mattered and being inconsistent too.

They are being taken seriously as title challengers and Simeone, 43, is adored by his players.

“There is no reason why he can’t be the Ferguson of Atletico and be here for 25 years,” said Felipe Luis, the Brazilian left-back who has been a mainstay of their defence for four years. “He’s changed everything here and he controls everything, too, the people, the tactics. He’s changed our mentality.”

A good example of that is another quote from Felipe, from early in the season: “I think it’s really difficult to fight Real Madrid and Barcelona. Real Madrid can afford to buy a €40 million (Dh200m) player and leave him on the bench.

“Barcelona can do the same. This makes a big difference in a 38-match league.

“Atletico have got a great squad, a very competitive one, but for 20 games, not 38. Their budget is much bigger than ours. At the end of the day, it makes the difference.”

Tonight is Atletico’s 19th league game. Nobody expects them to fall away as Felipe once did.

His side are also the neutral’s favourite to win the league and break the dominance of the big two.

Yet, although their squad is stuffed with talent including several home-grown players, it still does not compare to their rivals.

Whose does?

“It’s very difficult to beat Barca but we have options of our own,” said leading scorer Diego Costa. “It will be great to beat them in our home and become clear leaders in the league.”

“Two teams will meet in great moments of form,” said Barca’s Xavi.

Atletico have been fortunate with a lack of injuries so far this season and their team does not look fatigued, but they will likely face Lionel Messi tonight.

He has scored 17 goals against Atletico in 14 league matches. Not for nothing are Atletico called Messi’s favourite victim.

Ominously, Messi returned from a two-month injury to score two goals in four minutes in Wednesday night’s cup tie against Getafe.

The inside word in Barcelona is that Gerardo Martino is considering starting Messi on the bench because he wants to avoid risks following his two months out.

Martino also has to consider the excellent form of all his other principal attackers: Cesc Fabregas, Pedro and Alexis, if not Neymar, who remains a doubt. The expectation is huge; if nothing else Atletico have made the occasion as enticing as a clasico.

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