30 June 1998. David Beckham, playing for England against Argentina in Saint Etienne, affected the petulant swing of his right boot that would earn him a red card and change his life.
The recipient, captain Diego Simeone, didn’t overdo the theatrics, but he went down and stayed down long enough to make sure referee Kim Milton Nielsen knew what had happened.
Fast forward 15 years to Carlo Ancelotti’s press conference to preview the Madrid derby, played against an Atletico side now managed by Simeone.
"Atletico have the same style as he did as a player," Ancelotti said, with typical clarity, as per realmadrid.com. "Perfect positioning, great concentration and character. What Simeone was as a player, Atletico Madrid are as a team."
Ancelotti was sanguine on the frequent claims that their manner sometimes pushes the boundaries of acceptability. "It is Atletico’s style," he said. "To play aggressively and together. It is a good quality to use this weapon."
He was right. This was exactly how Atletico undid El Real at the Bernabeu on Saturday night.
If Simeone’s men had rode their luck—and the brilliance of their Belgian goalkeeper Thibault Courtois—during the Copa del Rey final against the same opposition at the same venue in May when they won a first derby since 1999, there was little feeling of theft here.
Atletico had only just over half the possession that their hosts did, but they used it very effectively. The only goal of the game was a case in point, with Gabi robbing Angel Di Maria and quickly transferring the ball to Koke.
The 21-year-old subsequently threaded through the pass—his sixth assist of the season—to set up Diego Costa to finish and score his eighth goal of the season. It was a well-oiled machine in action.
A look at La Liga’s standings will show you Atletico sitting five points clear of their illustrious neighbours with seven wins from seven games. The job Simeone has done to get them to here is nothing short of remarkable.
His CV tells you of a pedigree—winning an Apertura title with Estudiantes and a Clausura with River Plate, as well as saving Catania from the drop to Serie B in 2011—but the dimensions of his task at Atletico were considerable.
When he inherited Atletico from the long-since emasculated Gregorio Manzano a few days before Christmas 2011, they were not in good shape. Atleti were in 10th place and going nowhere, a familiar mess of internal wrangling, money problems and, on the pitch, defensive chaos.
It was clear Simeone would initially strive to sort out the latter problem—in Argentinian club football, he had a reputation as a dour, defensive coach whose teams were a difficult watch.
In the short term, that was the sort of stabilisation that was needed and, sure enough, Atleti didn’t concede a league goal for six games after Simeone’s arrival.
What was more noticeable is that they did so largely without sacrificing the attacking ambition that characterised this topsy-turvy club.
Simeone took them to the Europa League final where they won ruthlessly and emphatically against Marcelo Bielsa’s impressive Athletic Bilbao and—after they narrowly missed a Champions League spot—then to a European Super Cup hammering of Chelsea, to third place and that Copa del Rey win last season.
This week, Atleti travel to a heavily-decorated Porto without their hosts’ former striker Radamel Falcao—but as favourites.
Costa is perhaps the personification of Simeone’s influence; not always pretty and unafraid to bend the rules but mightily effective. He will be absent because of suspension at the Dragao, but David Villa, Arda Turan and the rest will be there. It’s a collective effort.
Simeone’s personality has done what seemed impossible; getting everybody at the Estadio Vicente Calderon pulling in the same direction. They will take some stopping.
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