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Atleti are favorites for the Champions League

Defeats can sometimes be very important in the evolution and transformation of a person or a team. No amount of strategizing in a classroom can equate to the emotional experience handed by defeat. Many times, defeat is an essential ingredient of greater success. The defeat at the hands of Real Madrid in the first leg of the Copa Del Rey semifinals was an important turning point in the making and evolution of this Atletico team this season. The lesson was not about losing points. Atletico has lost to many smaller teams in more disorganized ways. The lesson was about the reaction to an early goal and the ability to shrug off early setbacks that punish the style of play employed by Atletico. It was a costly lesson as the Copa Del Rey is emotionally an important tournament for the Atleti. It was the win over this same Real Madrid in this same tournament last year that boldly proclaimed the arrival of a third force in Spanish football, a league that has become a two horse race in recent years.

Atletico deploy the most organized defence in modern football. Today, it is the most comfortable team able to confidently defend a single goal advantage. The counterattacking nature of scoring doesn’t promise a rain of goals and so every goal is extremely precious. Setbacks in the form of early goals usually snuff-out the Atletico threat and make the team work harder than ever, sometimes pushing it beyond its ability leading to larger defeats. The ability to shrug off the setback and grow resilient was the lesson learned from the defeat in the hands of Real Madrid in the Copa Del Rey semifinals. A deflected goal pushed that game beyond redemption. But the lesson was learned, which was put to display when Atletico met Real Madrid again in the league. There was a repeat of an early setback, but there was no capitulation. In fact, by the time that match ended, Real Madrid was the one on the ropes and was more than happy to escape with a single point.

The progression of this season has also improved how the Atletico midfield plays together. The team is now more confident defending and so has started creating better chances in the opposition’s box. The progress has been so fast that it created three hits on the post and a goal in the opening 20 minutes against Barcelona in the return leg of the Champions League quarterfinals. This is in a match where Barcelona clearly had a mission to score, to nullify the away goal advantage held by Atletico. By the time it ended, we didn’t see the usual tired and panting Atletico praying for the 90 minutes to end. It was in fact Barcelona that looked tired and panting praying for the match to end to stop prolonging the beating being handed out. All this without the two most visible stars in Diego Costa and Arda Turan for Atletico, who were both sidelined with injuries.

The match itself was so one-sided that a detailed writeup is like prolonging the agony of a really painful surgery. Messi was nowhere to be found, his usual flair missing in front of the goal and having to drop deeper to spruce up the defence. It appeared as if the Argentine genius had his mind somewhere else, far away from the Calderon. The Neymar show had the usual brilliance in the wings flattering to fail when it counted, tightly marked out in the box. Iniesta was far more dangerous but lacked support. The new thinking in Barcelona seems to favour connecting Iniesta with Neymar, who seemed to be the more dangerous pair than anyone else on the pitch. The match had a strange feeling that it had all been destined even before the starting whistle had sounded. Barcelona looked so jaded and out of sorts reminding the Champions League semifinals last season.

Come this weekend, Atletico would again labour to a grinding win against another mid-table team in the league. That would be more a reflection of bordeom rather than inability. Diego Simeone’s biggest challenge in the league will be to keep his players motivated in the smaller, but equally important, matches. He might do well to rotate the players giving the usually benched ones an opportunity to have a go and add some spirit to the games.

If this Atletico is not a favorite to win the Champions League, then who is? Many write about the mighty Bayern, but I feel Bayern Munich is yet to see a real team. Atletico is no more afraid of other teams on this planet. It is now the other way around.

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