Quique Setién says he has told Atlético Madrid’s manager Diego Simeone exactly what he thinks of him but Simeone hasn’t told him back. He can guess, though: it doesn’t take a genius. “He might not like what I do, but he has the decency not to say so,” admits the chess-playing, beach football international, former manager of Equatorial Guinea (for one night only) and defender of an aesthetic footballing faith who briefly made Las Palmas the best thing in the league and is now at Real Betis, if maybe not for much longer. “He might go: ‘Bloody hell, this bring-the-ball-out thing, I shit on its mother!’ He’s good enough not to say that, but I’m sure he thinks it.”
So is everyone else, and more than before. Because if Simeone never told Setién, on Sunday afternoon he showed him. Really, really showed him. It was easy to imagine him barely suppressing a smirk, winking his way back to the dressing room at the Benito Villamarín and breaking into a giggle as soon as he got through the door, points won and point made. At the same time as he arrived, midfielder Koke stood pitchside. Talking to the telly, Koke’s opening line couldn’t have been clearer: “Betis were spectacular,” he said. “They played very well, they play very nice football.” Antonio Adán, Betis’s goalkeeper, agreed: “The football we played was incredible,” he insisted, “our opponents were truly dominated.” The problem was, a ‘but’ hung in the air and it was a big one. Dominated? Perhaps, but still not defeated.
Betis had more shots, more chances, and more of the ball. Much, much more; 74%, in fact. Atlético, who had never had less possession, completed just over 150 passes, Betis over 600. “Atletico were a mere spectator,” said AS. But Atlético were also the victor, Saúl Níguez scoring the only goal. “Betis bring the football, Atlético take the result,” AS added. “Setién’s team plays well, Simeone’s wins,” agreed Marca. And far from feel offended, Atlético felt a tingle of pride.
They’d done it again and the way they did it posed the question: could they do it again? As for Betis, much as Setién said the performance “strengthened” them, much as he insisted he’ll “never change”, and much as they’re still six points and seven places above the relegation zone, they’ve been knocked out of the cup, this was their sixth consecutive game without a win, and he’s under pressure, his philosophy now held against him. Simeone’s philosophy meanwhile, questioned at times, now reinforces him.
That all seemed to crystallise on Sunday. Betis versus Atlético, Setién versus Simeone, was always set up to be a clash of styles. Few clubs, few managers, are as clear in how they play; few are as far apart, either. Which was why ultimately perhaps there was something predictable about the way it played out. At the end of the match, the Betis defender Aissa Mandi insisted: “It sounds strange to say this but this might have been our best game this season.” He was wrong: maybe not about it being their best performance – although they won at the Bernabéu, beat Levante 4-0 and drew 4-4 at Real Sociedad – but about it sounding strange. It actually sounded pretty standard … only more so. This match was almost like a caricature and, like any caricature, it was exaggerated but there was also something in it.
“Betis were as pretty as they are ineffective,” El País insisted. “Atletico were a rock,” Zouhair Feddal said, and although they are more than that, not just the defensive team they’re sometimes accused of being, he was right. Simeone admitted Betis were “far superior”, but he was only talking about the opening 20 minutes and he was probably also right to limit it to that. To begin with, Atlético struggled a little and again they needed a sharp save from Jan Oblak, but by the end they had won again and as the game went on they were rarely exposed.
Simeone has faced Setién four times now and beaten him in each of them, never conceding. This time was, as Marca put it, “particularly bitter medicine” for Setién to take and AS was saying much the same: “You don’t like Simeone? Here, take two spoons of Simeone,” it wrote. You could imagine ‘El Cholo’ feeling especially satisfied, vindication served through victory. Atlético started with four central midfielders and finished with six defenders; they also finished with a win. “Setién couldn’t have knocked down that wall with a nuclear bomb,” ran one report.
None of which would matter that much if it wasn’t for the fact that this felt like something of a threshold. It was as if, much as this has been coming for weeks, there was suddenly some sort of recognition, an awareness of where Atlético are and who they are. Maybe it’s the exaggeratedly Atlético way it happened, their identity enhanced, or the fact victory meant they’re still the only unbeaten team in La Liga apart from Barcelona. More likely, it’s because this was the 19th league game in a row that they had avoided defeat – a new club record. The last team to defeat them were Villarreal, in April, and the last team to beat them away were also Villarreal, four months before. In other words, Atlético have not been beaten on the road in an entire season’s worth of trips.
Atlético’s season so far has been conditioned by two matches in which they could not fight their way past Qarabag. It is not just those games in which they have failed to get good results and struggled to score – they were beaten by Chelsea and the 0-0 draw in Rome hurt, while in the league they have drawn almost half of their games, while four of their eight wins have been 1-0 – but those two startlingly bad results knocked them out of the Champions League by someone other than Real Madrid for the first time in five years and coloured the way their campaign has been judged.
The derby against Real Madrid highlighted the lack of creativity, as well as Antoine Griezmann’s isolation, seemingly to underline why they might cede too many points to truly challenge for the title. With Europe slipping from their fingers too, the frustration was shown by the flat response to the final whistle when once upon a time holding Madrid – better still, damaging them – might have drawn a huge roar. Afterwards, Simeone hinted at his irritation and a suspicion that all was not well when he came into the press room and shouted – literally shouted – that work had to come first, talent second. He also ostensibly defended Griezmann but had actually hung him out to dry. Meanwhile, one Atlético player privately admitted they needed someone to deliver a few home truths, that they’d been given too easy a ride. Upsetting the odds meant continuing to fight, not accepting they’re stacked against you.
That night, it felt over. A new home that didn’t yet feel like a home probably contributed too. And yet … and yet Atlético were still unbeaten and they were still Atlético. Not winning, sure, but not losing either. Their identity remained clear, even if it is not as clear-cut as is often assumed: for each of the last two seasons a tentative evolution had given way to a moment in which they sought to get back to what they know, like a tacit recognition it was not really them; this season, even as they began a transition, a generational shift, it didn’t change much. The new Atletico looked like the old one, for good and bad.
For a moment there, some would say: for bad. There are certainly limitations, some which they may pay for and, you might argue, have paid for in the past. But just three weeks and three wins on things feel different now.
Barcelona dropped points twice in a row, which helps. Griezmann has been accompanied, not just left up front alone, which also helps. And then there are the games, all offering differing ingredients: a 5-0 win at Levante; a late, dramatic victory against Real Sociedad, the first big night at the Wanda; and now this, taken by some as the purest expression of “Cholismo”, that philosophy of football and life according to Simeone. Almost as if it was that good precisely because it wasn’t that good. Few have made a virtue of suffering like them, as if they’re not suffering at all. “This is our line and we have to walk it,” Simeone said.
On the weekend in which Sevilla got torn apart by Real Madrid, the runners appeared defined. Madrid, the team for whom Zidane said the ball just doesn’t want to go in, scored five, one for each of Cristiano Ronaldo’s Golden Balls; Valencia recovered from defeat in Getafe to beat Celta Vigo, but only just; and Barcelona struggled but eventually claimed a 2-0 win at Villarreal that El Mundo Deportivo said was the kind that decides a title. This was the week in which, while Barcelona still have a lead, everyone else won too and it felt like all of them will compete for the title. And in which it felt like, Atlético are among them.
There is no Champions League distraction now – although the demands made by the Europa League, while different, may be as significant – and here they are. Barcelona have a six-point lead but the sensations don’t always match the stats; Valencia stand a point above them; Madrid are two behind. “If it’s an 85-point league, Atlético can win it,” insisted former striker Kiko Narvaez. After all, coming up to Christmas, they’re still there. And coming out of it, Diego Costa will be there too. New Atlético, same old Atlético. Successful old Atlético? Competitors, anyway.
“What Simeone has achieved is the ‘milk’, the business. I wouldn’t even dream of being able to reach the level he has reached six years in a row,” Setién said before his side were beaten by Atlético, leaving Betis still seeking a win and him under pressure, proud of his approach if not the results. “I said I don’t like his football but you can’t imagine how much I admire him. If he played like I do, he wouldn’t compete with Madrid and Barcelona.”
• At each end of the Coliseum there was a huge Japan flag. Written on it was the slogan “Hello Japan”, which was periodically flashed up on the advertising board too, visible on prime-time TV out east. Before the game, there was an honorary kick-off, performed by skater Javier Fernández. He was flanked by Eibar’s Inui and Getafe’s Gaku, La Liga’s two Japanese players. Gaku wasn’t actually starting the game, so he had his Getafe shirt pulled over his tracksuit, before taking his place on the bench. For the first time, two Japanese players were set to face each other, and the league had decided to go big. Posters were done, Japanese animation-style, the two players turned all Oliver and Benji, and the match was moved to one o’clock in Getafe; the perfect time in Tokyo.
It was an opportunity to get them on board, breaking into a market dominated by the Premier League, but it wasn’t exactly a rip-roaring success. “You’d have to ask my president; it’s nothing to do with me,” José Bordalás said afterwards. “I saw that there was some stuff before the game, that’s all.” As it turned out there wasn’t much stuff during the game. Gaku and Inui didn’t meet on the pitch – by the time the former came on, the latter had gone off – and Bordalás admitted it “wasn’t a brilliant game”, while José Luis Mendilibar said: “For the viewers, it wasn’t a nice game to watch.” Which was one way of putting it. The advertising boards also carried a slogan saying: “It’s not football … it’s La Liga.” As it turned out, they were right. There was a superb save at the start, a superb save at the end, and a dreadful penalty, booted over. And that was about it. “If I’d been watching at home, I would have turned off,” said Eibar captain Dani García.
• “Unstoppable” cheered Sport. For much of their trip to the Madrigal, Barcelona had struggled but then two things happened: Raba went through Sergio Busquets and was sent off and Paco Alcácer came on, and it was a different game. Suddenly there was space, dynamism, and chances. Messi and Alba – 14 passes one way, 15 the other – played and played, the pitch tilted left. A moment’s acceleration made the opener, and it was brilliant: Messi, Suárez, Alcacer, ping-ping-ping, and Suárez stepped superbly round Sergio Asenjo (welcome back!) to score. Then Messi, gifted the ball from a goal-kick, burst through two defenders to get the second. Villarreal were furious about the red card – if it had been the other way around it would have been yellow Javier Calleja said, although he almost admitted that he hadn’t yet seen the replay – while Barcelona were delighted. “After two draws we needed to win,” said Ernesto Valverde.
• “Next time we’ll ask of we can play in our third kit so that he doesn’t know it’s Celta,” Iago Aspas said after his side were defeated 2-1 at Mestalla by Valencia. “I don’t like to say so, but something always happens with this referee: he seems to have something against us.” Aspas was furious, head still spinning, sweating on the touchline immediately post-game as he talked. Considering all that, he actually controlled himself reasonably well. Celta manager Juan Carlos Unzué admitted the players had “feared the worst” before the game and Munuera Montero was the referee who they had previously accused of lying in a match report. “Every time he is in charge they take points off us,” Hugo Mallo said later, the message calmer now but still the same.
• No Ramos, no Bale, no Casemiro, no Carvajal, no Isco, no problem. Madrid went to 4-4-2, sped up and raced through the Sevilla “defence”, over and over again. It was 1-0 after two minutes and 5-0 by half-time, Asensio leading and Nacho, Ronaldo (two), Kroos and Achraf scoring. “I didn’t really know what to do,” the Moroccan admitted. He was talking about the celebration – he knew perfectly well what to do with the finish, taking his chance very nicely, just as Ronaldo and Kroos would do.
• Still, that was rubbish compared to Dioni Villalba. The Fuenlabrada striker scored five all of his own as they defeated Coruxo 7-0 the following morning.
• Pitu Abelardo turned up in Vitoria, saw the snow and took his players off to Catalonia. It worked, too. They won in Girona on Monday and beat Las Palmas on Friday. Five days into his spell as Alavés manager they already have two wins – as many as in the previous 13 weeks. Not that it was as decisive as they would have liked: Deportivo and Málaga also both won. “Depor come up for air,” ran the headline in Marca. And AS, in fact. As for Málaga, this was their first away win since April. They hadn’t even picked up a point since they went to Granada in May. The good news is that Levante, beaten by Athletic and pretty bad too, look increasingly likely to be dragged into trouble.
• At Anoeta, there were banners in honour of Aitor Zabaleta, the Real Sociedad fan murdered by Atlético supporters. It happened 19 years ago and, like the murder of Jimmy Romero, the Depor fan in three years ago, near the Calderón, there is still no sign of justice.
Results: Alavés 2–0 Las Palmas, Getafe 0–0 Eibar, Madrid 5–0 Sevilla, Deportivo 1–0 Leganés, Valencia 2–1 Celta, Real Sociedad 0–2 Málaga, Betis 0–1 Atlético, Levante 1–2 Athletic, Villarreal 0–2 Barcelona. Monday: Espanyol-Girona.