“A family trait, then?” smiled Giovanni Simeone shortly after the final whistle had blown at the Diego Armando Maradona stadium. He’d just been informed that his tally of four goals in his first four Champions League matches had matched the record of another distinguished Argentinian.
No, it was not Maradona, the great hero of Naples. It was someone closer to home. It was the record of Diego Simeone, Giovanni’s father.
The younger Simeone would later phone his dad, as is his habit after matches, to share the curious coincidence that, with his two smart finishes in Napoli's 3-0 victory over Rangers on Wednesday, the son had mirrored a long-forgotten statistic belonging to the father. Almost quarter of a century ago, Diego ‘Cholo’ Simeone scored four times in the first group stage of his Champions League career, with successive braces for Atletico Madrid.
Unlike his eldest son, a striker, Diego was never a dedicated goalscorer, although he was expert in arriving late into the penalty box from midfield where, at his peak, he combined a rare energy with sound creative instincts and a famously combative character. The latter quality has been conspicuous in an extraordinary career as a head coach, and above all through the almost 11 years he has been in charge of Atletico.
Cholo was delighted at the news that ‘Cholito’ - being the son of a famous dad inevitably meant Giovanni inherited the junior version of father’s nickname - had enjoyed a landmark night. But it coincided directly with a crushing, draining watershed evening for the Atletico head coach.
For only the second time on Diego's long watch, Atletico have fallen out of the Champions League at the group phase, and it happened in agonising circumstances. As Giovanni was readying himself to collect his man-of-the-match award pitchside in southern Italy, on the touchline in northern Madrid his father was a coiled spring of tension.
Atletico and Bayer Leverkusen were locked at 2-2, a scoreline that suited neither. Leverkusen needed a win to climb into third place in the table, from where they would go into the Europa League. Atletico needed another goal so they could travel to Porto next week with a chance of climbing above the Portuguese club into one of the top two places in the group.
When Atletico were awarded a penalty, they had that chance. The drama could scarcely have been heightened. The spot-kick was awarded by VAR, for a handball unseen by the on-pitch referee. It was the ninth minute of stoppage time by the time it was taken. Antoine Griezmann, Atletico’s principal penalty-taker, was fatigued. So Yannick Carrasco, who had scored the first Atletico equaliser in a see-saw game and set up the second, volunteered. Simeone backed him.
Carrasco failed, his effort parried by Lukas Hradecky. The loose ball fell to Saul Niguez. Saul struck it against the crossbar. This time the ricochet came back to Atletico’s Reinildo. His shot was goalbound until it was blocked, unintentionally, by the heel of Carrasco. Atletico’s last chance, or their last three chances concentrated into barely three seconds of breathless pinball, had vanished.
The disappointment, said Simeone senior, felt almost as acute as on any European night he has known as a manager, behind only the two Champions League finals Atletico lost during his transformative epoch, the first of them a defeat in extra-time against Real Madrid after a 1-0 Atletico lead was erased in the 93rd minute, the second on penalties against the same rivals.
As Simeone reflected on another near-miss, somewhere up in French airspace, Porto’s players, on their flight back home after their 4-0 win in Bruges earlier in the evening, celebrated wildly. Atletico’s coming up short means Porto, knocked out of last season’s Champions League by Atletico on a ferociously bad-tempered last group-stage match, join Bruges in the next round.
When major setbacks like these confront Simeone’s Atletico, he is usually posed questions over when it will be time for him to move on. For over a decade the answer has been not yet. “I’m stubborn,” he said, “and I’ll carrying on pushing onwards as long I have the chance to with this club. When, in life, something is taken away from you, other things come along that we must chase after.”
For the Simeone clan, that was never truer than on Wednesday. Giovanni, 27, has had to be patient to define himself beyond the long shadow of his famous father, and to take these, his first steps in club football’s most prestigious competition. He’s now part of a record-setting, invincible Napoli. They are leading Serie A, and commanding the Champions League where there’ll be at least one Simeone in the knockout phase, even if it’s not the one we are used to, gesticulating and roaring along the touchline.