Atletico Madrid have always been a team for whom success is unbelievably sweet to savour. Not because they lack the abilities to be one of the worlds best, but because their city rivals Real have long kept them in the shadows.
Diego Simeone coaxed them into the limelight with a beautiful premise of hard work, rigid defence and swashbuckling attack. He instilled a team ethic of relentless running, forever pressing, marking and haranguing opposition into buckling under their bite.
In 2013, Simeone tasted domestic success, edging Barcelona to the La Liga title by just a single point. Spearheaded by outstanding young talent such as Thibaut Courtois, Filipe Luis, Koke, and Diego Costa, the step up to the elite of Europe brought them to the Champions League final in 2014 and 2016.
Yet both times they fell short of the summit, ousted by Real Madrid and the Galacticos who prolonged supremacy over Atleti with outstanding performances worthy of the success they enjoy and the talent they bear.
A 3-0 blitz at the hands of Cristiano Ronaldo at the Santiago Bernabeu on Tuesday night put Argentine manager Simeone in a position of some quandary. Negotiating a turnaround of this magnitude is a sheer impossibility, but he must now consider the long term question of how long he can continue to cling at the coat tails of Real before admitting that getting beyond them is a job too much for him.
El Cholo arrived in Madrid in 2011, with a philosophy that effort brings reward. An admirable sentiment though it may be, Simeone is despairingly short of the final hurdle which would see him enter the pantheon of the worlds elite. Against Real, his side pressed, and hashed, but were outdone as the defence were unlocked by Lula Modric, and destroyed by Ronaldo.
The effervescent Argentine is no stranger to a challenge, and can consider it an enormous achievement to accomplish what many Atleti fans believed would not come around again. But he has a habit of siphoning off his best assets when an offer comes along, always insisting he can regenerate new talent.
Diego Costa, Sergio Aguero, Courtois, David de Gea have all departed the Vicente Calderon, and all have tasted success in their new pastures. Meanwhile Simeone continues to labour in the 2nd and 3rd placed positions without getting beyond it. He does not need a galaxy of lavish signings to create his success, but giving his high performers the targets and glory that they aim for is critical. Simply “wearing the shirt” bears little relevance in today’s world.
A third placed finish looks certain once again, with Real on course to win a La Liga and Champions League double, before flexing their muscles in the transfer market this summer. With the cream of the crop to choose from, Zinedine Zidane can be confident his Los Blancos will maintain their edge over Simeone, who must now wonder where his next litter of talent will appear from and – perhaps more crucially – whether he has the means to keep them at the Calderon.