When Atlético drew their opening Liga game away at newly promoted Girona, there was immediate concern. In that game, Simeone’s side found themselves 2-0 down at half time and needed late goals from Ángel Correa and José Giménez to salvage a point.
That match could be used as a portrait of Atleti’s start, nearly but not quite. A run of three draws in their opening four games showed that while they weren’t getting beaten, the Madrid side just couldn’t find a way to win. Antoine Griezmann’s very public summer flirtation with Manchester United had many questioning whether the Frenchman’s head was still at Atleti and his poor form wasn’t helping sway the critics back in his favour.
Then after a disastrous home tie against Chelsea in the Champions League in which the visitors played Atlético off the park, the club seemed to be bordering on a dreaded “crisis”. But since that 2-1 defeat at the hands of Antonio Conte, Atlético have remained unbeaten. They have faced both Barça and Real Madrid in that time and have come out with their unbeaten league record intact, a feat only Barcelona can match.
This difficulty to be beaten has allowed Simeone time to sort out his attack. The good defensive work have salvaged points at a time when his strikers are misfiring and his midfield is failing to create chances. But a switch in formation to give Griezmann a striker partner has helped Atlético turn the corner. They are back to the Atlético of old, grinding out 1-0 wins which help keep them within touching distance of the league leaders.
Now, they are just six points behind Barcelona and two points ahead of their Madrid rivals. The reality is Atlético pose perhaps the greatest threat to Barça’s title chances. Aided by their early elimination from the Champions League, Simeone may feel his squad is good enough to rotate in the Europa League and thus allow his star players more rest.
A January and early February consisting of three home ties in a row presents a favourable run for Atlético at a time when they will look to unleash their weapon they’ve been holding since the start of the season. The return of Diego Costa may well prove to be crucial to any title ambitions. Sure, a player who hasn’t played competitive football in over six months is unlikely to hit the ground running but they have been aided by the fact he has been training with his new teammates since his signing and will have built up a familiarity with them. Also any weight put on from his escapade in Brazil will surely have been burnt off under Diego Simeone.
One of the biggest questions in who are Barça’s main rivals is how do Madrid cope with the Club World Cup? The players are currently departing to Abu Dhabi and while the games themselves will not be too taxing for a side of that quality, the fact that it causes fixture congestion for them back home is an issue. While teams like Barcelona and Atlético can enjoy a week long break, Madrid will find themselves playing catchup with midweek matches.
The biggest question mark over Atlético remains the strike-force. Griezmann continues to be linked with moves away and if the Frenchman does depart in the winter transfer window it will be a big loss regardless of the arrival of Costa. On the flip side, if Griezmann stays and sparks a partnership with Costa, that can be a truly deadly duo.
For as much as Barcelona haven’t looked perfect this season, the same can be said of Atlético but in the past few weeks, a corner definitely seems to have been turned. Along with Barcelona, they have conceded the fewest goals in the league and if Costa holds the key to scoring them at the other end, Atlético pose a very real threat.