Bayern Munich’s trip to Atletico Madrid is the rematch many are going to be keeping a close eye on in this round of the Champions League. The BFW team certainly will be, and so will our colleagues at SB Nations Atletico Madrid blog, Into the Calderon.
Before this big group stage clash, we set a couple questions to Jeremy Beren. Here is what he had to say about Atletico Madrid’s recent Champions League experience and his club’s new standing in Europe.
BFW: Atleti have made two of the last three Champions League finals, and have lost both times to city rivals Real Madrid. How were Atleti's last few Champions League efforts in your mind? Was it bitter to lose to a cross-town rival twice in a row?
JB: Making two Champions League finals in three seasons is a great achievement for anyone, but at Atletico Madrid, it is really remarkable. Although seen historically as Spain's third club, Atleti's meteoric rise has been stunning to watch. Diego Simeone's return in December 2011 signaled a golden age the likes of which hasn't been seen in these parts since the 1970's. What's more, Simeone and his players have been able to compete with the likes of Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid without the aid of large foreign investment or outrageous revenue generation – making the trophy-per-year haul since 2011-12 all the more impressive.
All that said, it has been difficult to watch Atletico come so close to lifting the ultimate prize, the Champions League, but be thwarted twice by its greatest rival. The Milan final was a very different game from the Lisbon final, but the way Atleti lost both games – and had a potential semifinal berth in 2015 ripped away – undercuts the talent and mental strength the team possesses.
BFW: It was not that long ago that Atletico Madrid were a team in the shuffle of Spanish clubs miles behind Real Madrid and Barcelona. Now they are a consistent title contender every season. Have expectations of the club chanced? What is considered a successful season for Atletico Madrid?
JB: Expectations have certainly changed for Atlético due to the recent success. The club now has a standing as one of Europe's top clubs, with a headlining superstar in Antoine Griezmann, a healthier financial situation and a new stadium next season.
The Champions League final losses have heightened expectations for Atlético, to where it could be said that winning the Champions League is the only way a season can be successful. I don't necessarily believe that, and Simeone doesn't either. However, a top-three league finish is required, as are runs to the last eight of the Copa del Rey and Champions League quarterfinals.
BFW: Diego Simeone is clearly a very good coach, and that makes him a hot target for other top clubs. How have you and other Atleti fans handled the rumors he may go somewhere else? Does Atleti's success hinge on him remaining in charge?
JB: It's become generally accepted that Simeone will leave in the next couple years. He recently had his contract “reduced” to 2018 and reports have circulated for years that he wants to return to Inter, manage Argentina or even go to the Premier League. The general acceptance that the Simeone era will end sooner rather than later has only made winning the European Cup more of an obsession - and Bayern are one of the teams standing in the way.
It's hard to analyze Atletico in a post-Simeone era, because there may be a player exodus with Simeone – Griezmann is the most likely player to leave with Simeone. But I will say the club has made strides to position itself as a contender for silverware for years to come. The team has many young, exciting talents either in the playing squad (Angel Correa, Jose Giménez, Saúl, etc.) or out on loan (Matías Kranevitter, Luciano Vietto). Also, the club's debt to the Spanish taxman should be eliminated next summer, and the board recently approved a record budget for next season. Life will be very different without Cholo roaming the sideline, but Atleti have the tools to stay in contention in Spain and on the continent.
BONUS! FIFA has handed Atletico Madrid a two window transfer ban similar to the one Barcelona went through a few seasons ago. How big of a setback is that for the club? Are you going to miss hunting for transfer rumors that involve your club?
The transfer ban has been met with a bit of ambivalence. Atlético had known there was a punishment coming for youth transfer irregularities, and to that end purchased younger players and brought more players through the academy or B side. No club ever wants to be put under a transfer ban but Atleti did very well to fortify its playing squad and tie down its key players to new contracts in advance of the ban. Of course I'll miss seeing the fanciful rumors (others will too), but Atleti's board and coaching staff prepared for the two-window ban about as well as they could.