MADRID: For all coach Diego Simeone has changed at Atletico Madrid, one thing remains the same — an inferiority complex when faced with their richer, more successful cross-city rivals Real Madrid.
Atletico have a huge task to overturn a 3-0 semi-final first-leg deficit if they are to avoid elimination at the hands of Real in the Champions League for a fourth consecutive season in the last ever European game at Atletico’s Vicente Calderon stadium on Wednesday.
Simeone has been in charge for what he described this weekend as “nearly six marvellous years.”
In that time he has led Atletico to their first league title in 18 years, ended a 14-year winless streak against Real and put the club back on the map in Europe.
But the defeats in the past three seasons have been all the more heartbreaking as they have come by the slimmest of margins.
Real equalised in the 93rd minute of the 2014 final en route to winning their long-awaited 10th European Cup. Another late goal edged a quarter-final tie 1-0 in 2015 and last year it took a penalty shootout to separate the two when they met in the final again.
For the first time last week’s first leg truly showed the gulf that still exists between the sides in terms of resources.
Real’s financial muscle even threatens to break up this Atletico side.
Theo Hernandez looks set to become the first player to cross the Madrid divide since 2000 this summer.
A move for the 19-year-old is seen as Real’s first step to breaking a gentleman’s agreement not to poach Atletico’s best players ahead of a bid to snatch their top scorer Antoine Griezmann in 2018.
“Tell me how does it feel,” said a huge banner released from the Real fans before kick-off at the Bernabeu last Tuesday alongside signs for Lisbon and Milan, the two cities where Atletico lost to Real in the final in the past three years.
– “Proud of our players” –
And yet as the stadium emptied nearly two hours later, it was the Atletico fans, beaten but unbowed, who sang the club’s anthem into the night.
That scene was repeated as the Atletico fans stayed behind after Saturday’s 1-0 win over Eibar, demanding the team return to the pitch from the dressing room to serenade them with chants of “proud of our players.”
That loyalty in the face of adversity is in contrast to the demands put upon Real’s players.
Even after scoring hat-tricks against Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals and Atletico last week, Real’s all-time top goalscorer Cristiano Ronaldo said “all he wanted” from the home fans was not to be jeered.
“Know how to win, know how to lose, #theycannotunderstand” Atletico posted pointedly on the club’s Twitter feed on Sunday.
“Don’t stop believing,” has also been a consistent emblem of Simeone’s time in charge of Atletico.
And the Argentine has been relentlessly positive over the past week in the midst of Atletico’s despair.
“We have to do something impossible and being Atletico Madrid we might be capable of it,” he said immediately after the first leg.
“I am convinced of it,” he repeated on Saturday. “If I wasn’t I wouldn’t say it. If we are united and understand that it is a semi-final at home we have a chance.”
Atletico’s home record in the Champions League under Simeone does give some small cause for optimism.
Los Rojiblancos have won 17 and drawn four of their 21 Champions League home games in the past four years, keeping 17 clean sheets.
Of those results, though, only those gained against modest opponents like Austria Vienna, Olympiakos, Malmo and Astana would be enough for Atletico to go through.
Most Atletico fans would settle just for finally beating Real on a famous last European night at the Calderon, even if it doesn’t stop their bitterest rivals from making the final once more.