Diego Simeone has masterfully turned Spain's big two into three, but would be foolish to leave Atleti without a European Cup

Diego Simeone has masterfully turned Spain's big two into three, but would be foolish to leave Atleti without a European Cup

Capping five years at Atletico Madrid this week, Diego Simeone only has one major trophy left to pick up. He'd be foolish not to.

Oliver Emmerson

Football is a fickle business. One day you’re romanticised, the next, ridiculed.

The managerial merry-go-round is an unforgiving business, and many managers fail to avoid it unless they deliver continued success.

One man, who has done that, and more, against all the odds, is Diego Pablo Simeone Gonzalez.

A messy start to a marvellous managerial career

Following an esteemed playing career, Simeone’s step into management wasn’t as smooth as those who don’t know about it may think. The outspoken Argentine coached six teams in as many years from 2006 onwards, leaping from one club to another with little sign of continuity. A league title was won in Argentina, but the inconsistency was complete paradox to the years that would follow.

On 23rd December 2011, six months into his second spell at Racing Club, Simeone would touch down in Madrid to sign a contract to become the new manager of Atletico Madrid. Real’s ugly little sister, one that had been dumped out of the Copa del Rey just days prior and who were toiling in the league.

A revival for Los Rojiblancos looked on the cards a couple of years earlier, with Quique Sanchez Flores leading the club to a Europa League victory, dumping out Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool at the semi-final stage. However, with Sanchez Flores out of the door and his replacement, Gregorio Manzano, struggling, it looked like years of mediocrity could return.

Not on Simeone’s watch. Less than a year after his arrival, the Europa League trophy was delivered once more, Radamel Falcao scoring twice in the final against Spanish rivals Athletic Bilbao. With Fernando Torres and Sergio Aguero having excelled and left in previous years, Atleti needed a new marksman, and Simeone had his. The poor league form was arrested, Simeone leading his new team to a fifth placed finish thanks to an away win at Villarreal on the final day. Impressive, but bigger things were to come.

Jesus turned water into wine, Simeone turned two into three

Barcelona. Barcelona. Real Madrid. Real Madrid. Barcelona. Barcelona. Barcelona. Real Madrid.

Going into Simeone’s first full season as Atletico Madrid boss, the previous list of La Liga winners indicted a two-horse race not dissimilar to that (at the time) in Scotland. It wasn’t great for Spanish football, having no side since Valencia in 2004 winning the title other than the big two, the footballing world were hoping for change.

Barcelona would go on to win the title that season, but there was a feeling that the gap was closing. Atleti finished third, 10 points clear of their nearest challengers. Simeone’s side would also take the Spanish Cup, Miranda scoring an extra time winner to see off the challenge of Real Madrid. Falcao kept his reputation as one of the world’s top strikers with 34 goals in all competitions, including tearing Chelsea apart in the 4-1 Super Cup win. However, he waved goodbye for pastures new at AS Monaco in the summer.

Atleti nearly lost two strikers, with Diego Costa – who had increased his stature at the club with 20 goals in that 12/13 season – considering a move to Liverpool, if the club weren't willing to give him their backing as their top striker following Falcao’s departure. He eventually got those promises, ones that Simeone and co were right to give.

Flash forward a year. It’s May 18, 2014. Simeone had successfully turned Spain’s big two into a big three. They led Barcelona by three points at the top going into their final day fixture away at the Camp Nou, but knew that avoiding defeat was a must in order to clinch the title. They did just that, drawing 1-1 to secure a first league title in 18 years.

Costa’s goals were key, although it was Simeone’s hugely organised defence that drew praise from all quarters. Scoring 23 goals less than Barcelona and 27 less than Real Madrid, it was the continuous clean sheets that saw them through, just 26 goals conceded in 38 games.

The defensive record, something that was fast becoming Simeone’s trademark, would continue to prosper in the next two years. 29 league goals conceded in 2015-16, bettered by letting in an astonishing 18 goals last season. Still, they’d come third twice, albeit only three points off the top last time around.

In fairness, you can’t blame Simeone, or Atleti’s players, for not being able to defend their title. Barcelona went hard on Luis Suarez, Real Madrid on James Rodriguez. Thibaut Courtois went back to Chelsea, whilst the English club also bought Costa and left-back Filipe Luis. It wasn’t about defending the title in order to keep up their profile as part of the big three, it was being in with a shout. Meanwhile, they continued to make waves on the European stage.

European overachievement coupled with heartbreak

Indeed, it was purposeful to skip over Atleti’s European heartbreak when talking about their 13/14 success. 2013/14 didn’t only see the title win, but also a Champions League final. Topping their group, Atletico knocked out AC Milan, Barcelona and Chelsea to set up a final against Real Madrid.

Having won the league, denying their bitter rivals La Decima would have been another sweet success, one that very nearly came to fruition. Diego Godin opened the scoring, with the defender’s goal separating the two teams for over an hour, only for Sergio Ramos to intervene with an equalising goal in stoppage time. You know what happens next. Bale, Marcelo, Ronaldo. Boom, a real romp from Real. The history books will suggest a thrashing, yet it was nearly so different.

Still, if the league win came earlier than anticipated, European success would have been extremely premature. With that in mind, Simeone led his side back to the European Cup final two years later.

Incidentally, the year in-between the two finals was another impressive one, European wise. Whilst they fell adrift to the free scoring MSN in the league, Atletico topped eventual runners-up Juventus in the group, falling once more to Real Madrid in the quarter finals.

Out of Europe to their city-rivals in consecutive seasons, revenge was all set up as the two teams met each other in the 2016 final. Whilst Real Madrid’s route to the final was a comfortable one, seeing off Roma, Wolfsburg and Manchester City en route, Atleti’s was all but easy. They had to knock out holders Barcelona and tournament favourites Bayern Munich in order to reach the final. Once they’d done that, the feeling that final success would follow was inevitable. Unfortunately for Simeone, it did not.

Sergio Ramos reared his controversial head once more to open the scoring, but it was Atleti who would fight back on this occasion, equalising with 12 minutes left on the clock. Buoyed by this, they didn’t wilt in extra time, taking the game all the way to penalties. The first seven were scored, before one man missed. That man was Juanfran, allowing Cristiano Ronaldo the chance to settle things. He did just that. Atletico hearts broken, again.

Love letters from abroad

Looking back at his five years at Atletico Madrid, Simeone can be immensely proud of what he's achieved. On a budget far less than what Barcelona and Real Madrid boast, he's delivered; one league title; three top-three finishes; one Europa League; one Super Cup and one Copa del Rey. 

He's developed talents such as Diego Costa, Antoine Griezmann, Diego Godin, Thibaut Courtois and Koke. He's built the best defensive in Europe. He's established himself as one of the best, if not the best, managers in world football.

One would forgive him for considering another challenge. 

Chelsea were long term suitors, however the Blues appear to have found their man in Antonio Conte. The Premier League boasts arguably the best managers in world football, and you'd be foolish to think that Simeone wouldn't consider testing himself there, but it doesn't seem to be on the radar currently.

Two teams that certainly are on the radar are Inter Milan and Paris Saint-Germain. PSG are long term admirers. They've been for Simeone before, and they'll be back. Perhaps even sooner than many think, given that Unai Emery has the French league holders five points off the top as it stands.

Inter Milan is a more likely next move for Simeone. He was adored by their fans as a player there. His son is a talented youth prospect in the same league, at Genoa. Inter represent a similar challenge to Atletico, in terms of a starting point. Simeone favours the underdog. He thrives on it. 

Giovanni Simeone, his aforementioned son, stated weeks ago that he believes his father will one day manage the Italian giants.

"He will sign for Inter Milan at some point. I hope for that. He is very happy in the Atlético de Madrid, I see it as well. But Inter may occur in the future."

How far into the future, seems to be the question. 

For all his triumphs, leaving with no Champions League would likely become a regret

Simeone's current contract ends in the summer of 2018. He has given assurances that he won't leave before the end of that contract, and may even extend it, but rumours do nag away suggesting that he could go at the end of this season.

Nearly at the halfway point, Atleti have fallen way off the pace in the title race this time around. In sixth place and nine points off league leaders Real, who have a game in hand, there's an inkling that some of the fire might just have left Simeone's red-hot belly. Perhaps the wonderful run is over, for him at least. Perhaps, just as when Jürgen Klopp left Borussia Dortmund, a new man is needed to inject some fresh blood into the squad. 

There is, however, an alternate way of thinking. 

Indeed, Simeone would neither have wished for or anticipated Atleti's poor start to the league season. They are though still just a point from Champions League qualification, something they'll believe they can seal relatively easily in the second half of the season.

Where they have been making waves once more is on the European stage. Drawn in a group with Bayern, many anticipated Simeone's side to be in a tough battle for top spot, most thinking they'd have to settle for second.

With five consecutive wins, and just one goal conceded, the group was won before they played Bayern on the final matchday. 

Despite indifferent league form, Simeone has still maintained Atletico's force in Europe, seeing them cast a favourable draw against Bayer Leverkusen in the last 16.

Will Atleti's lack of a title challenge propel them to a third Champions League final in four years? Could it be third time lucky?

With Barcelona and Bayern Munich looking lesser sides this year, Real beatable and no standout English side, Atleti's defensive record coupled with Griezmann's genius may well see them reach at least another semi-final. 

What is without doubt is that, whilst Simeone will undoubtedly go down as a legend at Atletico for all that he's achieved, his legacy could be tainted by a failure to win the European Cup.

With such an exceptional tactical brain, it seems inevitable that Diego Simeone will one day lead a team to win the Champions League.

Howevever, it would be made all the sweeter if he ended a memorable tenure at Atletico Madrid by bringing the title to Los Colchoneros. 

Felipe VI, the king of Spain, has seen Atletico become kings of Spain during his honorary presidency. 

If Simeone stays at the helm, becoming kings of Europe is the next, final step.