Girona's La Liga fairy tale continues after thrilling win against Atletico Madrid

They sit in second place, level with leaders Real Madrid, after 4-3 victory over Simeone's team

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There are rarer things in elite football than an Atletico Madrid side under Diego Simeone conceding four goals in a game, but not too many. Scroll through Simone’s back catalogue of 652 matches spent building his monument to tenacity and rugged defensive excellence and you find very few scorelines that heavy.

In Simeone’s 12 years as head coach, there have been four-goal hiccups a couple of times away in Germany, and very occasional leaky nights against Barcelona and Real Madrid, alongside whom Simeone’s great achievement has been to build a lasting competitive parity.

So what happened on Wednesday, at the stadium with the lowest capacity in Spanish football’s top division, was stunning: Girona 4, Atletico Madrid 3.

It’s a statement scoreline, a notice that Girona intend to carry deep into 2024 the fairy tale they have been writing through the last five months. Joint top of La Liga, they are the most eye-catching upstarts in European club football. Girona are also, with a respectful nod to Manchester City – currently only third in the Premier League – the new year front-runners within the global paddock of the Abu Dhabi-backed City Football Group, CFG.

Back when Simeone was first appointed at Atletico, tasked with making a fragile institution into La Liga’s grizzly upstarts, Girona were in Spain’s second division. They spent most of that 2011/12 season in the relegation zone, avoiding the drop to the third tier only late in the campaign.

This is only their fifth season ever in the top flight. Their last promotion was less than two years ago. Yet the win over Atletico, sealed in injury time in front of 14,000 who made enough noise to sound like a crowd double that size, means they now share the leadership in Spain, with Real Madrid, at the halfway stage of 2023/24.

Besides the bold muscling into a space usually reserved for Madrid, Barca and Atletico, Girona have now supplied perhaps the match of the season so far, a raucous see-saw at their Montilivi arena that not only inflicted very rare damage on an Atletico scoreline but featured various collectors’ items.

There was Alvaro Morata, career-long enemy of the raised linesman’s flag, regularly beating an offside line on his way to a hat-trick for Atletico. There was, again and again, Atletico being beaten at their own game.

Girona had ambushed Simeone’s men with their readiness to contest and win the 50-50 challenges from kick-off. They led within two minutes, thanks to an elegant shot from Valery Fernandez after the visitors had been harried into an error.

They kept stretching Atletico on the counter-attack, and poached all three points thanks to a determined patrol into the Atletico penalty area and a cool, 91st-minute finish from Ivan Martin.

“It’s a historic day for us, for the city and the region,” said the Catalan club’s coach, Michel, exhilarated by the spectacle he had witnessed.

“We played a super first half but in the last 20 or 25 minutes either team could have done damage at any moment.”

Girona’s goalkeeper, Paulo Gazzaniga, had a busy evening. But his opposite number, Jan Oblak, was kept equally alert. Daley Blind, the former Ajax and Manchester United defender, had testing moments up against Morata; Blind also scored Girona’s third goal, finishing off the sort of carefully rehearsed set-piece routine that Simeone’s Atletico have built a reputation for perfecting.

“I congratulate them,” said Simeone of the victors. “Girona are doing really well and if they carry on being as decisive in attack, things are going to carry on going very well for them.”

Can they be title contenders in a league which, over the past 20 seasons has been won only by Barca, Atletico, or Real Madrid?

Michel says only that the target is to qualify for a European competition for next season.

Should they achieve a top-four finish – or even a top-five place – that could mean rubbing shoulders with City in the Champions League, a possibility Girona are confident would not breach Uefa restrictions on meetings between clubs with overlapping ownership – CFG’s interest in Girona amounts to less than 50 per cent of the club.

Might they go to Real Madrid in five weeks time looking down the table at their hosts, the only team to have beaten Girona in 19 Liga fixtures so far? The calendar looks kindly on that possibility. Girona’s next league game is at bottom-of-the-table Almeria, while Madrid are away in Saudi Arabia for the Spanish Super Cup.

That means a chance to move clear at the summit. “We can’t compete toe-to-toe with Real Madrid,” insisted Michel. After a month in which Barcelona have been beaten 4-2 and now Atletico 4-3, Girona supporters are allowed to believe their coach is being too modest.

Updated: January 04, 2024, 3:58 PM