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Are Atletico Madrid legitimate title contenders?

by Tom Conn | Posted on Thursday, September 27th, 2012

Atletico Madrid expert, Michael Cerna takes a look at the incredible early-season success Los Colchoneros have found under manager Diego Simeone, and answers the question on all of our minds; could this be the team that breaks the La Liga duopoly?

After Wednesday’s 4-2 victory over Real Betis, Atletico Madrid now sit in second place in La Liga with four wins in five matches. Los Colchoneros sit just two points behind Barcelona and six ahead of the reigning champions, Real Madrid. 

As we near October, the early results of this season warrant asking the question, ‘can Atletico Madrid challenge the big two for a title this season’?

There are plenty of reasons to think so.

Do they have what it takes to win titles?

Thus far, Atletico have been incredible. Their offense has been the best in Spain and the defense as reliable as any in the country.

They’ve scored 15 goals to this point, one more than Barcelona in first place and eight more than a Real Madrid team that broke the league record last season.

If they hadn’t fallen asleep for the last 10 minutes of their match against Rayo Vallecano, would have allowed just one more goal to this point and would have the higher goal differential.

In terms of talent, there is no question that the starting XI can compete for a title.

Radamel Falcao currently leads La Liga with seven goals, one more than the current Pichichi holder, Lionel Messi. The Colombian is the best pure striker not just in Spain, but all of Europe at the moment.

The midfield is a perfect blend of youth, world class experience, and versatility. The defense has tons of experience and the fullback pairing of Juanfran and Filipe Luis is arguably the best in the league.

Potential Setbacks

But what about beyond the starters? In today’s football, silverware is not won by first-choice talent, it is won by the team with better depth and health. As Barcelona showed last season, even the best clubs in the world suffer by just a few key injuries.

While Los Rojiblancos can go toe-to-toe with the best clubs in Europe, their bench is what makes them weaker by comparison. Being able to sub in players like Adrian Lopez, Cata Diaz, and Raul Garcia is great, but not quite as impressive as bringing in Luka Modric, Alex Song, Gonzalo Higuain, and Cesc Fabregas.

It are these comparatively weaker bench options that will limit SImieone’s men late in the season. They do not have to worry about Champions League play like many of their peers, but they will still do their best to win the Europa League and the Copa del Rey.

Maintaining fitness and form are immeasurably more important to the Mattress Makers than it is to the deeper, more talented squads under Jose Mourinho and Tito Vilanova.

Looking Forward

While the odds are not in their favor when compared to the big two, that does not put the league title out of reach. History and the nature of the sport have always shown us that injuries and form are rarely controllable.

If Falcao & Co. can manage to keep grinding out results and stay in the hunt through the winter break, anything is possible. Barcelona and Real Madrid will almost certainly drop a fair few points after the break.

In the second half, they will be more willing to focus on the domestic trophy over Europe due to being in the less prestigious Europa League.

Starting with a very winnable match against Espanyol this weekend, Atleti have a very strong shot of not only staying in the title race through December, but leading it.

If they win in Barcelona Sunday, Los Rojiblancos will enter October behind only Barça and at least six points ahead of Los Merenuges.

A Clasico between those clubs in two weeks could see Barcelona drop points and, if Diego Simeone’s team can handle Malaga that same weekend, they would actually be in first place. Who knows where that momentum could carry them over the course of a season.

So can they pull it off?

When looking at the talent on Diego Simeone’s roster, the results gained and dominance shown by his club so far, and the relative struggles of Spain’s traditional big two,  are fans foolish to believe a new challenger is in place this season?

Of course not, but we have to be careful how much hope we hold.

Los Colchoneros have a starting XI that can beat any team in Europe, they have enough depth to manage two or three competitions, and they house one of the top coaches in Spain.

What they don’t have is guaranteed fitness or the money to buy more depth this winter. The latter could prove especially crippling could one of the key players go down with injury. That is what separates them from the big two.

So in conclusion, Atletico Madrid certainly can challenge for the league trophy. But the keys to doing so are very fickle and very easily lost with this squad.

In order to contend for a full season, they need more than just inspired play and big wins. They need a bit of luck and, for those who believe in such things, some favorable fortune and blessings.

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