Diego Forlan: Top class manager, talent and stability — if any team can beat Barcelona, it’s Atletico

In his weekly column, Diego Forlan looks at the rise of his former club Atletico Madrid ahead of their top of the table clash with Barcelona.

Diego Simeone is the main man at Atletico Madrid and has been the driving force behind the club's sharp rise in recent years. Juan Medina / Reuters
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It is Barcelona against Atletico Madrid Saturday, first against second in Spain, with both on 48 points, though Barca have played a game less. I think the Spanish champions will come from one of the two who will meet at Camp Nou. Can Atletico win the league again? Of course, that is where they are with over half the season gone.

My old team is full of settled, experienced and talented players who already know what it is like to win the league. They have an incredible manager in Diego Simeone and no team in Spain comes close to having a defence as good as Atletico’s.

They have conceded eight goals all season, less than any Spanish club for over 20 years. My compatriot Diego Godin is one of the best defenders in the world, experienced and, like many of his teammates, with an understanding of how Simeone coaches. He also has worked alongside teammates such as Juanfran for years. That all breeds confidence.

Godin is in the perfect place because he is also a threat at set pieces and Atletico are the best team in Spain for those situations.

That combination of a strong defence and emphasis on set plays makes them very tough opponents. They are content to win 1-0. They are not a team that attacks in waves, but one which contains the opposition, leaving no space for attackers, and they cover each other really well, a striker’s nightmare.

Atletico also have an excellent goalkeeper in Jan Oblak, the latest in a line which includes David de Gea and Thibaut Courtois. That is another thing they do well, recruit. They spend big money but recoup it.

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Atletico have other advantages. Madrid is a great city to live in with sunny weather. It has better connections to South America than anywhere in Europe and a lot of Latin American players have done well there because the culture and language are so similar.

Simeone is Argentine, so he knows South American players very well. They also know and respect him. The links are strong. When River Plate, the South American champions, had an emerging midfielder in Matias Kranevitter, Atletico signed him. But it is not only a club for foreigners: Gabi, Fernando Torres and Koke are Madrid-born Atletico fans. That reinforces their identity.

Atletico players no longer need to leave to be in the Uefa Champions League, like they did a decade ago, because the club have established themselves as one of the teams who regularly reach the quarter-finals of the competition.

They have become very attractive and now have money to buy top talent. Not the same level as Barcelona or Real Madrid, but still excellent players or emerging stars like Antoine Griezmann, who is having a great season. He has got fantastic pace and a superb left foot.

If they have a weakness then it is a lack of goals. It is not a team that creates as many chances as Barca or Madrid so they need to take the ones that they do.

Griezmann has been their standout player, but Jackson Martinez has not yet reached the expected levels following his big money move from Porto. Martinez is a very good player but has had tough luck with injuries.

Torres and Luciano Vietto have not scored many either, but, like Martinez, they are still excellent players. However, Atletico cannot just rely on Griezmann for goals.

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Simeone is the main man, though. He has a tight team around him who he trusts and there are other back-room staff who have been at the club for years. He is a details man. The players are ultra fit and he demands they give absolutely everything for him. They know they do not have Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, so if they are going to beat Barca and Madrid they have to make up that short fall by working harder and having a very strong team spirit.

Simeone has little interference. For years, Atletico was not a stable club, coaches were sacked frequently, and there were arguments behind the scenes all the time.

That has all changed and Simeone has a control he is unlikely to find elsewhere. Instead of wasting energy arguing, that energy goes into football. Simeone’s name is linked with jobs at bigger clubs, but he is already at a huge club in a city he loves, surrounded by people who love him.

Maybe people like a change of scenery sometimes, but there are so many positives to him being at Atletico that I would not be surprised if he stayed.

Atletico are also looking forward to a move to a new 70,000-capacity stadium next year. It looks beautiful from the plans and while there will be a lot of fans sad to leave the Vicente Calderon, the bigger stadium can help them become a giant of world football.

Atletico have been the great success story in Spain over the past seven or eight years; the mentality completely different from the one I found when I arrived.

Alongside Sergio Aguero and De Gea, and others, I would like to think I played a part in helping change that mentality, but it is Simeone who has built a team that can fight for titles.

Tomorrow, they go to Camp Nou and play the best team in the world. Can they get a result? In 2014 they went there on the last day of the season needing to get a result to win the league at the expense of Barca in front of 98,000. If a team can do that, as Atletico did, then they can do anything.

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