Diego Simeone had the appearance of a broken man after his Atlético Madrid side again tasted bitter defeat in San Siro. Facing the press after Real Madrid’s penalty shoot-out victory, the Argentinean coach admitted he “needed time to think.” It will take a few days to digest another Real victory in extremis in Europe’s elite club competition, a piece of silverware that has still not adorned the Atlético trophy room. It’s hard to see the rojiblancos getting so close a third time in swift succession, not least because other sides will re-enter the competition stronger next year, their bulging wallets a magnet to the world’s best players.
Atlético’s recent history in the transfer market makes for uncomfortable reading for the red and white half of Madrid. Since Simeone signed on the dotted line in December 2011, replacing Gregorio Manzano, Sergio Agüero, Diego Forlán, David de Gea, Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa and Arda Turan have all been sold. What Simeone has achieved at a club with more book-balancing to do than their European rivals is remarkable. He arrived at the Calderón quite out of the blue. For some time, Roman Abramovich has been trying to get him into a tracksuit of the same colour. The Russian billionaire cherry picked the Atlético side that lost the Champions League final in 2014 and won’t be shy about making a serious bid for Antoine Griezmann this summer. Diego Godín remains a target for the Stamford Bridge hierarchy in light of John Terry’s waning powers and Koke would be a huge upgrade on Chelsea’s current midfield.
The question that faces Simeone, and one he rhetorically asked himself in Milan, was left hanging in the air: “Is this the end of a cycle?”
Simeone may feel he has taken Atlético as far as he feasibly can. The Argentinean’s prescription of blood, sweat and zero tears works wonders with a team built around the industry of Gabi, a €3 million acquisition from Zaragoza, the craft of youth teamer Koke and the goals of Atlético’s last successful major buy, Griezmann. All have been moulded by Simeone in the former midfielder’s own image: Uncompromising, fully committed, with more grit than John Wayne de-icing roads. Many wondered if the flighty Griezmann could function under Simeone’s regime. He has become one of the finest forwards in Europe.
But will Atlético be able to keep the squad together? The Euros are a further shop window that the Calderón will hope opens only inwardly. The club don’t always get it right: Jackson Martínez simply didn’t buy into the Atlético way. That Enrique Cerezo squeezed a profit out of the deal is more due to China’s largesse than the president’s negotiating skill. Atlético simply can’t afford another Jackson, let alone five. Atlético can now attract top-tier players to the club through their success, but cannot offer the sort of wages the Premier League can. In Spain, they can’t compete against the financial might of Real and Barcelona. Simeone is the draw. He is a cast-iron guarantee of success, forged in footballing fire and brimstone.
And he is, therefore, hugely attractive to other fallen giants. Atlético were a club in disarray when he arrived, viewing the summit of Europe from the foothills of La Liga. But Simeone’s options are limited. The Premier League’s grandest clubs have made their moves already ahead of next season. There is little to interest him in Spain and most other leagues would be a step down. Serie A is the only obvious choice, the Argentinean’s links with Inter an attractive proposition to both parties. Under Roberto Mancini last season the neroazzurri missed out on the Champions League. Simeone has intimated he would relish the opportunity to turn Inter into a force again. Atlético’s most pressing item of business it to persuade him to delay that reunion for as long as possible. Simeone built this Atlético side with his bare hands. Where the club will go if he decides the cycle has come to an end is a sweaty palm job for the board.
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