In the Chinese Zodiac, 2014 is the year of the Horse, a powerful creature that symbolizes energetic enthusiasm and the tireless pursuit of goals. In the chase for La Liga this season, the Horse symbolizes Atletico Madrid perfectly and their pursuit of their first title in nearly 20 years. Madrid has demonstrated time and time again their work horse like mentality, carving out results often with critics skeptical of how long it can last. Against all odds, Atletico sit at the top of La Liga in a straight race to the finish, closely pursued by the leagues two thoroughbreds, Barcelona and city rivals, Real. The message from Diego Simeone to his Atletico Madrid team is clear – win your remaining games and the title is theirs. It will take a colossal effort to do so but if they can pull it off, 2014 will no longer be the year of the Horse. Instead it will be the year of the Diego’s.
Atletico’s title run has been a lesson in teamwork, with the entire squad pulling as one in a single direction. But three men have stood head and shoulders above the rest in this endeavor, elevating Atletico Madrid to new heights that they have not experienced in decades. They are the three Diego’s – defender Diego Godin, star striker Diego Costa and last but by no means least manager Diego Simeone. This trio, supported all the way by a pedigree cast such as David Villa, Gabri, Juanfran, Koke and Thibaut Courtios , have symbolized Atletico’s determination and self belief that they can break the Barcelona/Real stranglehold on La Liga and be crowned champions at the end of May. At 28 years old, Uruguayan Diego Godin has spent most of his career in Spain, with three seasons at Villarreal before transferring to Atletico before the start of the 2010/2011 season. Slowly over the next four years, he has toned and perfected his game, becoming a mainstay in the Atletico side and an ever reliable member of the first team squad. His solid performances at the back this season against Barcelona in November and Real Sociedad in February have helped Atletico to hold on to the best goals against total (21) in the league to date. Realizing his importance, Simeone was quick in offering Godin a new long term contract last year, in an effort to ward off the advances of interested teams.
One player Simeone will struggle to hold on to at the end of this season is Diego Costa. The Brazilian born Spanish striker has been in blistering form this season notching 24 goals in the league from 29 appearances. His partnership with David Villa has proven to be the catalyst behind Atletico’s push but has attracted the eye of a host of top European clubs. Like Radamel Falcao before him, Costa is likely to depart at the end of the season as part of a bumper transfer but he will be hoping to do so as a La Liga winner. Costa owes a lot to Simeone who put faith in him to fill the void left by Falcao, who departed for Monaco during the summer. Falcao was a legend at the club, scoring 70 goals in 91 games, helping them to lift the Europa League and Super cup trophies as well as the Copa Del Rey during his time. Atletico pocketed €60 million from the sale giving Simeone several options in his search to replace him, but instead he placed his faith in Costa, who has rewarded him in kind with a season full of goals and stunning performances. A strong ox like striker, Costa is a nightmare for opposition defenses. Good with both feet and powerful in the air, Costa drives at defenders like a steam train making him one of the games most feared strikers. If Atletico are to win La Liga, they will need Costa to continue his goal scoring exploits and so far he is do so.
Atletico are performing like a team, with Costa and Godin at the heart but they would not be in this position if it wasn’t for manager Diego Simeone. The Argentinean coach has been nothing short of inspirational since his return to the club in 2011. He has turned Atletico around and made them into a force again in the league. Remarkably he has done so with very little investment in new playing staff, preferring instead to work with and craft the existing squad into a team of winners. The belief that was starved under previous regimes is now back and in abundance, built on the successes in Europe and the Copa Del Rey victory over Real Madrid last season. Before Simeone’s arrival, Atletico struggled and toiled against teams like Getafe, Real Betis and Valencia but this season they are winning those games with ease and emphatically in some cases. Atletico fear no one, not even Barcelona or Real who in the past have been too strong for Los Rojiblancos to cope with.
Winning La Liga would be the pinnacle of Simeone’s managerial career and would be the final piece in what has been an ever changing puzzle at Atletico. In doing so, Simeone will be in high demand himself, with offers coming from both domestic and international teams but the draw of Madrid should keep Simeone in the Spanish capital. Atletico is deeply entrenched in Simeone’s heart as he is now in theirs. Delivering the La Liga title is his goal and like a workhorse, he is continuing to pursue that dream with vigour and determination. Reaching his goal will mark the transition of Atletico from a work horse to a thoroughbred and in doing so will change the race in La Liga long term from a two horse to a three horse race. Simeone and Atletico know what they need to do, they need to win their remaining games including their final match of the season, away to Barcelona. Not an easy ask but if there is something that Simeone is always up for is a challenge.