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Simeone's Atletico Madrid tenure may come to its Champions League conclusion in Liverpool tie

There's a scenario whereby, completely unnoticed, we might be witnessing Diego Simeone's last Champions League match at home in charge of Atletico Madrid on Tuesday.

Those who've been thrilled by his intense, brooding, winning ways, his Johnny Cash-in-football-boots persona, will fervently hope that it's not so. Those at Atleti who've benefitted from the hundreds of millions of euros he's earned them across nearly a decade of exhilarating European exploits will be praying the same.

But here's the deal: Who's the favourite in this tie? It's Liverpool, by a distance. And for several reasons. Not just because they are Champions League holders but because Jurgen Klopp has his side doing a passable impersonation of peak Simeone Atletico, only better: the intensity, the fervor for winning, the same squad unity, the same feeling that everyone at the club, all the fans and owners aren't just singing from the same hymn sheet, they wrote the words.

Liverpool's footballers are all consistently performing on a range of eight-out-of-ten to ten-out-of-ten and have been doing so for a couple of seasons. It's an incredibly rare feat, but one that Simeone and assistant "Mono" Burgos also achieved for a couple of years around their 2014 La Liga title win. That was Atleti's first such triumph in 18 years, somewhat less of a drought than Liverpools will be when, some time in the coming weeks, they become England's champions for the first time in 30 years.

Nevertheless, the similarities between the two clubs' ideas, attitudes and achievements make this an extra-intriguing tie. Sadly, it comes at precisely the wrong time for Atleti.

To have seen Los Rojiblancos of 2013-14 or 2015-16 take on Klopp's Liverpool of the past two seasons would be reason enough for someone in Silicon Valley to finally confirm that, thanks to billions spent on research and development, time travel was now an app available to all of us.

The stifling, aggressive press and rob of that Atleti era: the remorseless registering of clean sheets, their utter brilliance at imposing themselves in attacking set plays, the bullishness of peak Diego Costa, world-class Antoine Griezmann, Arda Turan's impishness, imperial Diego Godin; you'd pay handsomely to watch them play Alisson, Virgil van Dijk, Andy Robertson, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Jordan Henderson and the magical forward trident of Roberto Firmino, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane across two legs of knockout football.

But Liverpool are not only a mirror, showing in stark detail how Atleti have declined, England's champions-elect are arguably a better XI and a better squad than even the remarkable levels Simeone has reached since taking over at the Vicente Calderon in 2011.

The greatest thing that unites the two clubs has been messianic belief in the coach.

From the day he crossed the threshold, taking a moribund bunch and immediately winning Atletico their fifth international trophy, Simeone has been the club's benign dictator. They are defined by his standards, his rules, his personality, his spiky, relentless need to win.

Klopp's not too dissimilar, in effect at least. This is his Liverpool. The German's personality floods Melwood and makes him an all-permeating influence, from those who serve the tea to the leading goal scorer to the academy kids who polish the first team's boots to the data technicians. It is extremely evocative of how Simeone and Burgos have been at their Majadahonda training ground, the Calderon or now the Wanda Metropolitano during their golden years.

But Klopp and Simeone want to see their football achieve different objectives: the Argentinian winning 1-0 at any cost, the German almost equally happy to win 4-3 or 6-0 so long as the three points head to Anfield and the game was entertaining. These two leaders of men convene with their most rabid followers, the fans, on a weekly basis. If they are angry, the fans are furious; if they are jubilant, the fans are ecstatic. They appeal a decision and the lava of fan anger pours down on the official. The supporters are a sea of certainty: "In Klopp/Simeone we trust."

Or at least it was that way at Atleti. Not necessarily now.

Diego Simeone looks on during Atletico Madrid's La Liga match against Real Madrid.
Diego Simeone's time in charge of Atletico Madrid may be nearing its end.

Once it was like an evangelical preacher exhorting his flock to raise their their voices heavenwards. Simeone would hop from foot to foot with anxiety, imagined or real, and after spinning around like the Tasmanian devil, often with three or four minutes left on the clock, he'd flap his condor-wing arms up and down and the response would be a guttural roar of beseeching, unconditional support from the supporters to the 11 souls in red and white on the pitch. Simeone's energy and standards were communicated via the voices of 50,000 disciples. It was magical.

Then, last week, as Atletico were still holding on 80 minutes after Angel Correa gave them an early -- and slender -- lead over Granada, Simeone reached for the arm-flapping trick. It was like an old champion boxer knowing what punch to throw but with reactions so slow that the challenger sees it coming a mile off. There was no reaction from the fans, no messianic "we believe" roar. Instead, there was apathy, frustration and very little impact.

Strange, changed times. Football is weird, let's agree on that.

More surprising things have happened than Liverpool perhaps feeling just a little gentler than they were before their winter break and the globetrotting holidays Klopp's players were able to cram in. They'll benefit from the time off, eventually, but can they get back to ramming speed immediately?

Stranger things, too, have happened than the warriors at Atleti -- Jan Oblak, Koke, Saul, Yannick Carrasco, Correa and perhaps even newly fit Alvaro Morata -- bucking themselves up sufficiently for a home win. But over the two legs, with Simeone's troops now beginning to show the same "we're not really sure whether we believe in Simeone anymore' lethargy, Liverpool are demonstrable favourites to go through.

Let's say that happens. There's a brilliant five-way race for the crucial fourth Champions League-qualifying slot in la Liga. Atletico will be most people's favourites and, should they qualify, it's much easier to see Simeone moving a year further towards the end of his contract, which extends until 2022. But the two clubs closest to Atleti in fourth, Sevilla and Real Sociedad, are either level on points or just two behind, while Valencia and Villarreal are, respectively, two and four points off Simeone's team. It's not comfortable. It will be a battle royal.

If Atletico don't qualify for next season's Champions League, I doubt it would lead to Simeone being sacked -- not after such lengthy success. However, do you doubt that Atleti are casting about just in case there's a better alternative out there?

Talking of better alternatives, it's the gossip of the Spanish football industry that Mono Burgos -- fluent in English -- is starting to get itchy feet, beginning to wonder whether he could win trophies and earn a huge salary increase by heading out on his own. Will he? Would that damage Simeone at Atleti? You'd guess so.

And Simeone's infamous, brutally demanding fitness coach, "Profe" Oscar Ortega? Atletico's players no longer maul other teams with their suffocating pressing, they no longer shut down a single-goal lead so effectively; in fact, they no longer look as if they are enjoying their football. Ortega, it would appear, has scalded those who've worked with him for years and, just as happened when Real Madrid said thank you and adios to fitness coach Antonio Pintus before appointing Gregory Dupont last summer, change seems both inevitable and vital.

Some of you may believe that Atletico knocking out Liverpool is within Simeone's remarkable compass. Fair enough. Some may believe that even if he's defeated and has nothing to play for other than Champions League qualification from March onwards, he's certain to stay with Los Colchoneros next season. OK, no problem.

But the concept of this elimination either leading to a mutual agreement to change at the end of this season or yet another year in the Europa League, and then either the club or their manager deciding it's time to part ways in summer 2021, well, neither of those scenarios now seem terribly unlikely. Each would mean that this gargantuan match against Liverpool would be looked back on as an unheralded "Adios" for Simeone in the Champions League with Atleti.

It's not the right way for a great reign to end. I hope it isn't so.

But don't rule it out.

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