If winning La Liga caused Atletico Madrid to soften their lead or lose their identity, a Champions League game against Manchester United could be an opportunity for them to regain it.
From the highs of winning their second league title in 25 years, have come the lows of humiliating defeats, unprecedented fragility in defense and introspection over style and application that have cast doubt on even Diego Simeone’s future.
And yet in the midst of all the soul-searching and despair, there have been resistances, a handful of rare but uplifting performances spanning a miserable season, each of them awakening hopes that a corner would be turned.
After losing to Alaves, Atletico rallied against AC Milan at the San Siro, scored and won 2-1, Luis Suarez scored a penalty in the 96th minute.
After losing at home to Mallorca, they triumphed in an all-or-nothing game against Porto in Lisbon, a fiery 3-1 win that dragged them into the Champions League last 16.
In the last month alone, as the blades sharpened and the pressure mounted, Atletico came from two goals behind Valencia and trailing 3-2 to beat Getafe, both times finding a winner in the last minute.
Each time, the momentum was fleeting. After each comeback, they lost at least one of their next two games. Whenever Atletico nearly rediscovered themselves, they drifted off course just as quickly.
Before Simeone arrived in 2011 and took them to the European elite, there was an advertisement in Spain that became synonymous with Atletico Madrid.
“Dad, why are we supporting Atleti?” a young boy asks from the back of the car, while in the front his father tries to find the words. The silence lingers before an answer cuts across the screen under the Atletico badge: “It’s hard to explain. But it is something very, very special.”
Atlético Madrid have always enjoyed a sense of inferiority, even accepting and promoting their status as an underdog, a community club, in part as an antidote to Real Madrid’s glamor and wealth.
“Proud not to be like you,” read the banner draped over the Calderon before the two sides met in the Champions League in 2017.
Simeone has always enjoyed positioning Atletico as the impostor of the Real Madrid-Barcelona duopoly. “Have you seen the Barça team?” he said in October when asked about Lionel Messi’s loss to Barca. “Barca say: ‘Messi is gone, we lost 30 goals’. I say ‘yes, you don’t have 30 goals, well we never had those, we never had Messi’.”
The problem was that when Atletico won La Liga, they were no longer cheaters, but favourites, pushed to a place they were not used to and were not comfortable with.
It’s a shift they’ve struggled with all season, not just psychologically but tactically. With talented players and those who like to attack, Simeone struggles to find a system and style that suits him.
“For a team like Atletico it is not easy to become champions; it is a club that is not used to becoming champions every year. Nothing you’ve done before counts for anything. What counts is what awaits us,” Simeone said last month.
“Last season the games started and we would bite,” said Jose Gimenez. “This year I think we have calmed down.”
But there have been flickers, in the biggest games or the most desperate moments, when the inferiority complex kicks in and the old fire gets hot again.
After beating Osasuna on Saturday, Simeone was asked if the win could be a spur to the game against Manchester United at the Wanda Metropolitano.
“Everything helps,” he said. “No year is the same, in football or in life. There are always obstacles and that’s what we have now, a test. Let’s see if we can handle it.”