The longest journey in their Uefa Champions League history lasted until past midnight, and when the players of Atletico Madrid touched down in Kazakhstan, nearly 7,000 kilometres from home, temperatures had dropped well below zero.
Astana is the novel destination in European football’s most elite competition, and there, on Tuesday evening, Atletico hope to take another step in showing they intend to be regarded as a more than just the novelty finalists of the European Cup’s modern era.
Since Atletico finished as runners-up in 2014, an improbable victory snatched from them by a late Real Madrid equaliser in Lisbon and then a one-sided period of extra time which left Diego Simeone’s side on the wrong end of an unflattering 4-1 scoreline, there have been substantial changes to the squad.
Of the team who began that final, fresh from winning the Spanish league title, five have left the club – Thibaut Courtois, Diego Costa, David Villa, Miranda, Raul Garca – and another, Felipe Luis, left and since come back. A clutch of senior players who did not make the starting side that night for reasons of injury or Simeone’s selection, have gone too: men such as Toby Aldeweireld, Mario Suarez and Arda Turan.
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That represents quite a turnover, and a challenge which Simeone has approached with trademark intelligence and a firm set of principles.
He now works with a budget that reflects the successes he has brought to Atletico in his four years as coach, but one that still lags well behind the twin giants of Spanish football, Real Madrid and Barcelona.
Some additions have surprised. Fernando Torres’s return to the club he grew up with last January was motivated not by the player’s goalscoring form – he had suffered a wretched year, at Chelsea and then AC Milan – but by a hunch that Torres would respond well to Atletico’s supporters and Simeone’s distinct style.
But in the summer, with Mario Mandzukic departing after a season trying to fill the vacancy left by Diego Costa, Simeone knew he also needed a target man striker. Jackson Martinez, experienced, strong and used to the top-level of the European game from his time at Porto, was the choice.
The jury on Martinez is still out. Last Friday night, his team held to a draw at Deportivo la Coruna, Simeone’s frustration with the Colombian striker’s looseness in possession was evident as the coach prowled his technical area. Five days earlier, however, Martinez contributed substantially to what Simeone had called “the best match we have played in recent times”, a 2-1 win against Valencia. Martinez’s goal in the game, full of poise and power, doubled his tally so far for Atletico in the Primera Liga.
“There is always a period of adaptation when you change club,” Martinez said. “I have been trying to make mine a bit shorter.”
The last two weeks have seen the blossoming of Yannick Ferreira Carrasco, signed for a fee in the region €20 million (Dh80.9m) in the summer from Monaco. The winger, 22, is a full Belgium international, and offers explosive speed, and, on recent evidence, a coolness in his finishing.
He has two goals from his last three league outings. He too has found the demands of Atletico’s hard-pressing, counter-attacking style something new. “I have freedom in attack, but I have needed to work on my defensive game,” Carrasco said.
Simeone is aware his squad needs rejuvenating. Carrasco is one element in that. So is Angel Correa, the Argentine striker who, at 20, has shown enough of his precocious talent in his two months at the club to put him on the radar of bigger spenders than Atletico. He has been excused the trip to Astana for family reasons, while injury means fellow Argentina striker, Luciano Vietto, 21, signed from Villarreal in the last transfer window, also misses out.
They will have plenty more chances ahead.
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