Robbie Dunne reports from Spain on the new faces in the race to the top of La Liga
Nobody likes change. Especially when the change you are currently undergoing makes you look a lot like your direct competitors, and a lot less like the team that made you the success that you are.
But change is essential, and without it Atlético and La Liga might remain the same for the next number of years. Just don’t tell Diego Simeone that he is following in the ways of his rivals.
"I laugh," Simeone said once, and then a second time for effect. "I laugh when people say that only now are we an attacking team and that only now do we play well."
He then listed off the attacking talent in the previous iterations of his very own Atlético Madrid. He spoke of Yannick Carrasco and Kevin Gameiro in his current side. There was the 2011 Europa League final when they beat Athletic Bilbao 3-0 with Diego Ribas, Mario Suarez, Adrian, Arda Turan, and Radamel Falcao.
He also mentioned Koke and Diego Costa, but there is no denying that Atlético are becoming the kind of attacking team that Real Madrid and Barcelona have been for years.
It just seems that, for Simeone at least, to admit that would be to admit you have ambition. An admission that you just might be favourites for the title, if things work out for you. An admission that you have notions about yourself. And in doing so, you are giving oxygen to the fire that keeps Barcelona and Real Madrid winning on an annual basis.
So, if Atlético won’t accept that they are now dining at the top table, who are the "real" favourites? Nobody seems to want to take on that mantle in what is becoming a more hotly-contested title than many anticipated.
Barcelona are creating their own mini-siege mentality, given the comments of Javier Tebas, President of the Liga de Fútbol Profesional (LFP), about Neymar and some of the Barcelona players falling to the ground “like a game of skittles” after being hit with a bottle from a Valencia troublemaker in the stands.
"We’re accustomed to an infinite number of controversies, and this is just another one," manager Luis Enrique said, shortly before they struggled beyond lowly Granada in a game that proved just how important Andrés Iniesta is to their functionality.
Real Madrid, on the other hand, are limping through their own issues, and with Pepe set to miss important games against Atlético Madrid and Barcelona, it means they are just one defensive injury away from having to play Gareth Bale at centre-back. Well, things might not not be quite that bad, but Zinedine Zidane will have to use all his juggling skills to ensure he doesn’t have to deal with the consequences of the crisis which they seem to be on precipice of.
Perhaps the fact that there is no talk of a favourite at the moment is because nobody knows who the favourite actually is, of course. Any manager would be wary of accepting such responsibility, as it might tip the balance and have the opposite effect to that which you are trying to achieve.
Regardless of who you have as your number one in La Liga’s top three, Simeone won’t react kindly to hearing his Atlético Madrid side mentioned as a contender. Or maybe he will just laugh at the thought instead.