Back in mid-December it looked like Atlético Madrid’s season was falling apart.
On December 12, they lost 3-0 at Villarreal leaving them sitting sixth in LaLiga.
It was the third consecutive game in all competitions they had failed to score in, and in fact their only league win in five had come against struggling Osasuna.
In the 2015/16 season they conceded just 18 goals, but after that loss to Villarreal, Diego Simeone’s side had already let in 14.
Change in style
And it was a result of Simeone switching from Atleti’s formula for success.
The Argentinean had opted for a more expansive approach – perhaps it was ahead of their move to the Wanda Metropolitano next summer, or perhaps it was trying out a new style of play in the hope of winning the Champions League after two final defeats in three years.
— AtléticoFans (@AtleticoFans) March 13, 2017
Despite this more attacking style of play, summer signing Kévin Gameiro was struggling for goals, as was Antoine Griezmann.
Both Frenchman had six goals apiece, despite getting 16 and 22 respectively the previous campaign.
It was evident this change in style was not working.
Atleti won 73.68 per cent of their fixtures last season, yet after the Villarreal game, they had won less than half of their games – just seven out of 15 league fixtures.
And after Simeone had reduced his contract at with Los Rojiblancos in September, it looked like a golden era for the 2013/14 champions.
And he was clearly uptight about his future, saying he needed to focus on turning their fortunes around.
“They asked my sister if she thought that I would coach in Italy some day, and she said it could happen, that it wouldn’t be strange,” he said.
“They asked my son one day at a game between Genoa and Inter and he said it could happen someday.
“I have chosen not to speak anymore, especially as the results of the team are not great.
“The important thing for the Atletico fans are the facts.
“Words come and go, but facts show you the real person. When I leave here it will be because it is good for the club.”
Atlético Madrid are Atlético Madrid again
But fast forward to now and it feels like the old Atleti are back.
After that Villarreal defeat, Simeone’s side won the next three games without conceding a single goal – that is much more like the Atleti we all know and admire.
Indeed, since that Villarreal game, Los Rojiblancos have only lost once in the league and it was Sunday’s game against Sevilla where they really showed the early season form was only a blip.
The 3-1 win against a side that until recently were title contenders was pure Atlético Madrid.
The were intense, quick, pressing high. They scored one from a set play and another from a counter attack.
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Griezmann is showing the form that makes him look worth his €100million buyout clause – the Frenchman now has five goals in four games.
Yannick Carrasco is destroying teams by flying up the right hand side, while Koke and Saúl Ñíguez are showing their ability to impose themselves in midfield.
Diego Godín looks back to his imperious best, and with Jan Oblak back, Atleti have one of the best goalkeepers in the league once again.
It is no surprise that they have conceded just five LaLiga goals since that Villarreal game, and that has helped them move back up the table to fourth – just two points below Sevilla in third.
They are seven points clear of Villarreal, who sit in fifth, and Champions League looks guaranteed.
Simeone has gone back to what made Atleti so successful, and they are looking a real threat once again.
Speaking after the match against Sevilla, in which the scoreline flattered the away side, the Argentinean coach said, “People, the press, have eulogised Sevilla all season.
“This has been our hardest season, we’ve had to reinvent ourselves, turn it around, to find the best way to identify with ourselves, but we’re there.
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) March 19, 2017
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“This result gives us enthusiasm and we won’t back down.
“Any other team would be broken after losing two Champions League finals in almost two consecutive years, but we’re there, yet again, fighting.”
And that’s the key word, fighting.
Atleti are fighters and that’s brought them so much success, and that’s what will bring them more success, if they carry on fighting.
That will be a concern Leicester when they meet them in the Champions League, trying to outwork the Madrid side will be near on impossible.
“Every time the Champions League hymn plays I’m in pain,” Simeone told Onda Cero.
“The Milan final was a total failure. If you look in the dictionary, the definition of failure is to not reach your goal and our goal was to win the Champions League.”
And with Atleti back to their best, you wouldn’t put European success and a top three finish beyond them to send off the Vicente Calderón with a high.
Then, moving into their new stadium which holds 73,000 people next season, and with Atlético Madrid’s transfer targets for the summer reportedly including Alexandre Lacazette, if Simeone stays and keeps his side fighting, Los Rojiblancos could soon return to the summit of LaLiga.