Seldom has a would-be winter champion felt so thoroughly wintry. The heavy snow over Madrid, on top of the restrictions imposed because of the pandemic, all but sealed off the Spanish capital at the weekend. Nothing, though, can remove the handsome view of La Liga enjoyed by the city’s most resilient football club.
Atletico Madrid are top of the table. They have played three matches fewer than the teams in second and third, defending champions Real Madrid, and Barcelona, title-winners in 2018 and 2019. Beat Sevilla at home on Tuesday, and Atletico would be assured of reaching the halfway stage of the campaign at the summit - making them so-called ‘winter champions’ - although with all the staggering of fixtures, not all clubs will arrive at mid-point milestone of 19 matches simultaneously.
It is a healthy state for a club who at the outset of 2021 were confronted with a trio of serious setbacks. Kieran Trippier, their ever-present full-back and primary provider of pinpoint crosses was handed a 10-match ban by the English Football Association after they found he had broken guidelines on revealing inside information about his 2019 transfer to Atletico from Tottenham Hotspur. Diego Costa, scorer of 83 career goals in Atletico's colours announced he would not be scoring any more, and asked to leave. Atletico then suffered an embarrassing defeat in the Copa del Rey at Cornella of the third division.
Mere hiccups, as it turned out. Atletico appealed Trippier’s suspension with Fifa, and his sanction is temporarily lifted. The England international could be involved against Sevilla.
As for Costa, the farewells to a player who first joined Atletico well over a decade ago were made, and the club looked quickly ahead. On Monday, they were closing in on a replacement, in the form of the loan of Moussa Dembele, the French centre-forward, from Olympique Lyonnais.
“It’s very advanced,” said Atletico head coach Diego Simeone of the deal to bring in the 24-year-old Dembele, intending him to provide extra impetus to a title-bid that has so far required some deft improvisation through the Covid-19 pressures on the calendar and, lately, through snowstorms, which caused Saturday’s match against Athletic Bilbao be be postponed.
That this is an unusual season was exemplified when a trio of Atletico players arrived at practice - relocated to the club’s stadium, the Metropolitano because of adverse weather - in a 1980s 4x4 Fiat Panda. The players had apparently borrowed the car because it would handle icy roads more safely than their own luxury vehicles. “We all needed to be a bit creative just to be able to get together and train,” said Simeone.
The Argentine has been similarly resourceful in navigating Atletico’s 2020/21 campaign. Deep into pre-season, he was calculating that his chief threat on goal for the months ahead would come from Alvaro Morata and Costa.
But, by October, Morata had joined Juventus, and Simeone was welcoming Luis Suarez, who had been released by Barcelona. Suarez scored twice on his debut, and has barely looked back, scoring seven times in his nine Liga starts since.
Simeone then identified Dembele, nearly 10 years Suarez’s junior, as a potential partner to the Uruguayan - or as an alternative, in case of injury or for those evenings or afternoons where Suarez requires rest. The France striker has a broad base of experience. A teenage prodigy at Paris Saint Saint-Germain’s academy, he moved to Fulham, where he made his Premier League debut at 17, and had two successful seasons in the English Championship. From there, Celtic, where he was their leading marksman in the first of his two title-winning seasons in Scotland.
Dembele took some of that form into the Champions League, too, where he would play a starring role in the advance of Lyon, who he joined in 2018, to the semi-finals last season. His two goals against Manchester City knocked City out in the last-eight stage. Simeone likes Dembele's penalty-box presence and his sharpness on the break.
The head coach presumably likes Atletico’s position in La Liga too, although Simeone always does his best to stay blind to almost everything but the next assignment. How did he feel, top of the table with a three-match cushion? He gave a one word answer: “Sevilla.”
Tuesday’s opponents, sixth in La Liga, could deflate the cushion swiftly, he pointed out. “I’ve always admired them for their special competitive character. They’ll be in the title-race right to the end.”