It was supposed to end in the semifinal and the quarterfinal and the round before that. It was supposed to end in Milan and Barcelona and on this night in London. Heck, by all standards of reason, it was supposed to end months and months ago.
Yet Atletico Madrid's incredible season surged onward on Wednesday thanks to a Champions League triumph over Chelsea that put it a step closer to a soccer miracle, one so extraordinary it would command an eternal pace in the game's history and folklore.
Atletico, a Spanish club mired for so long in the shadows of that nation's rivalry between its cross-city rival Real and fellow heavyweight Barcelona, is an organization in such gruesome financial peril that it is on the hook to the taxman for a reported $138 million and other creditors for quadruple that amount. But amid all that, a tight-knit group of players led by an inspirational coach is now, somehow, in with a very real shot at ending the campaign as both champion of its country and the continent.
After a scoreless first leg in Madrid, falling behind early at Chelsea did not deter Diego Simeone's side. It merely inspired it to a performance that was stunning in its efficiency. Atletico's equalizer from Adrian benefitted from a snoozy defensive lapse from the home side, but by the time a Diego Costa penalty and an Arda Turan rebounded strike iced it, there was no doubt the visitors deserved their victory.
One game remains to win Europe's biggest prize against none other than Real Madrid, with all of its billions, billboards, superstar talent – featuring the world's best player (Cristiano Ronaldo) and its most expensive (Gareth Bale) – and fat marketing contracts. Atletico's shirt sponsor is the business and tourist board for the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan (no, I don't get it either).
Perhaps even more remarkable is that Atletico has been able to outstrip Real and Barca over 35 games in the Spanish league, leading by four points with three matches remaining.
All of this positivity has materialized against a backdrop of fiscal turmoil. Experts surmised that more than 90 percent of club revenues are swallowed up on player salaries, an utterly unsustainable situation. It was said that if the team failed to qualify for next season's Champions League it would immediately fall into insolvency.
The picture couldn't have been much bleaker, yet through it Simeone has masterminded not just a revival but also an achievement better than the club could have dared to expect. Even last season's La Liga finish of third place was hailed as a superb achievement. Atletico's last time in the semis of the European Cup – the Champions League's predecessor – was 40 years ago.
It all prompts the obvious question of how are they able to do it. But anyone who can answer that holds the key to eternal soccer riches and it is a secret Simeone is keeping to himself.
Yes, Atletico are organized, well-drilled, physically fit and collectively committed. But such a concept as a blueprint is not a new one. The same words could be used to describe Chelsea after its victory at Liverpool last weekend and the Blues have spent a lot more money on talent.
Remarkably, Simeone has found a way to close the financial gulf and get the best of some of the game's finest tactical minds. That's what he did Wednesday against Mourinho, one of the most astute soccer thinkers of them all. And once Atletico had overhauled Chelsea's advantage, one set up by Fernando Torres' low strike, and then moved clear, they simply refused to let their opponent get enough time on the ball.
For a while, Chelsea started to look like a team of destiny in this competition. However, Atletico is now riding that tidal wave and though the facts are improbable, the team now looks close to unstoppable.
Real Madrid will have something to say about that in the Champions League final on May 24 in Lisbon. Also, the La Liga title is not in the books yet with Atleti's trip to Barca scheduled for the final day of the campaign.
But make no mistake, Atletico Madrid is the greatest story of a great season, one that may belong in totality to a contender no one believed in.
- Sports & Recreation
- Atletico Madrid
- Real Madrid
- Diego Simeone