Atletico back in the big time
Typically Sunday’s 1-0 win over Deportivo Coruna came with the usual dose of nail-biting, wincing and stomach churning that have made the Calderon such a stressful place to be in recent seasons.
Although the dependable Diego Forlan put Atletico ahead on the stroke of halftime, the team looked to be suffering a severe bout of stage fright in the final quarter and nearly threw it away as they watched the Galicians lay siege to their goal.
So it was with a mixture of joy and relief that Atletico secured their first top four finish since they did the double back in 1996.
It is about time too as the club’s claims to be one of the “equipos grandes” had begun to wear dangerously thin following a stream of morale-sapping disappointments and false dawns.
Atletico have always been one of La Liga’s big spenders but they have developed the unfortunate knack of buying expensive and selling cheap, recruiting sought-after players who then sink without trace while watching their discards turn into world beaters at other clubs.
This season seemed set up for the usual disappointment, what with the sale of iconic striker Fernando Torres to Liverpool and a massive outlay on new players such as Forlan, Jose Antonio Reyes, Simao Sabrosa, Raul Garcia and Luis Garcia. The club then appeared to have shot themselves in the foot when they decided to sell Maniche mid-season after he fell out with coach Javier Aguirre.
But for once, other results went Atletico’s way as their immediate rivals failed to take advantage of their slip-ups. They also had the good fortune to have one Sergio Aguero in their ranks. Shielded by Aguirre in his first season at the club, the 19-year-old Argentine came into his own following the departure of Torres and thrived alongside the selfless Forlan.
Aguero has racked up 18 goals this season, while Forlan has weighed in with another 16, so that despite losing their direction in midfield following Maniche’s exit and having one of the shakiest defences in the league, Atletico held on to ensure their return to the big time.
Some of the club’s success-starved fans used Sunday’s win as an excuse to celebrate at the Neptuno fountain in the centre of Madrid, but the more experienced of the Calderon faithful kept their feet on the ground.
“Just wait until we lose in the Champions League qualifiers and don’t even end up playing in Europe next season. That will be typical Atletico,” one fan said to me when I saw him this morning.
Simon Baskett, Madrid
PHOTO: Atletico players celebrate the win against Deportivo Coruna, May 11. REUTERS/Susana Vera