Atletico’s melancholy mission

Europa League winners Atletico Madrid try to shake off bad times as they set Barca’s Spanish crown in their sights.

Messi leaves on crutches after sustaining an injury that was initially feared as an ankle break [Luisa Urrego Bolaños]

Over the years, the loyal fans of Atletico Madrid, one of Spain’s oldest and most prestigious clubs, have become known as one of the best supports in the country.

In recent times, that support has been tested.

Being in the shadows of their glamorous cross-city rivals, Real Madrid, has been a way of life.

So much so that the aptly named Street of the Melancholics on one side of the Vincente Calderon is often filled with gloomy Atletico supporters pondering what might have been.

The story, though, has changed dramatically within the last year for the Colchoneros – or Mattress Makers.

They have been sleeping splendidly this summer in between the victory in the Europa League final in May and the Uefa Super Cup triumph in August.

Those two European trophies were ecstatically celebrated in the Plaza de Neptuno, Atletico’s traditional celebratory spot in the centre of Madrid.

Dried up

Just a street away, at the Cibeles Fountain, where Real Madrid fans and players revel in their own triumphs, the parties have dried up – an unlikely change of fortune for Atletico supporters.

When Real Madrid’s big-spending president Florentino Perez plugged in his latest big money project last summer with the arrival of Kaka, Ronaldo and Benzema, the suffering seemed destined to continue for the Colchoneros.

Indeed, a woeful start to last season saw the supporters fill the Street of the Melancholics with protests against the club’s owners, which at times bordered on the violent.

But a switch of coach and a spectacular end of the season, which saw the club’s star striker Diego Forlan hit rich goal-scoring form ended with two final appearances: the victory against Fulham in Hamburg and a narrow loss to Sevilla in the Copa del Rey final in Barcelona.

Coupled with the failure of Perez’s Real Madrid to win any titles, Atletico fans were ecstatic.

“If it hadn’t been for Atletico’s goalkeeper De Gea we could have won much higher here. I’m very happy for De Gea, a youthful and talented goalkeeper in a very strong team”

Victor Valdes, Barcelona goalkeeper

Even Esperanza Aguirre, Madrid’s mayor, proudly (and perhaps opportunistically considering that Atletico is known as the working class club in the capital) pulled on the famous red and white striped shirt.

The next season too started in spectacular fashion for the Colchoneros, winning the Super Cup against European Champions League holders Inter Milan in August, and racking up two opening round wins in the Primera Liga.

Then came this Sunday’s visit of defending champions Barcelona to the Vicente Calderon – an opportunity to show that Atletico really are in with a chance to win La Liga this season.

For the Catalan visitors, it turned out instead to be the day in which they underlined their status as the slick-passing team-to-beat in Spain this year, and likely for many years to come.

A highly-deserved 2-1 win for Barcelona ensued, played out at a frenetic pace and in a stadium sizzling with a fantastic atmosphere worthy of champions.

Indeed after each goal that Barcelona scored, the Atletico supporters grew louder, sending vibrations through the spectacular ground.

Messi limps out

The only melancholy note for the Catalans was the serious injury to Lionel Messi, who limped out of the stadium on crutches after an injury-time challenge.

As Barcelona’s Brazilian defender Maxwell told Al Jazeera after the game: “It’s a shame for us, we hope Messi will get better soon. It’s a very strong tackle. But it’s very important to win here.

“I think we are playing well, like last year. We are confident, but we know that it will be very difficult to win all the titles.”

The victory here in Madrid was equally valued by Spain’s World Cup-winning reserve goalkeeper Victor Valdes, who said: “If it hadn’t been for Atletico’s goalkeeper De Gea we could have won much higher here. I’m very happy for De Gea, a youthful and talented goalkeeper in a very strong team.”

The relief on the faces of the Barcelona stars as they walked out of the Vicente Calderon with three points was clear to see, and it was equally a reflection of Atletico’s growing status in Spain this season.

For Atletico’s fans, it was another melancholy night against one of the top sides in Europe.

But as the stadium announcer proudly imparted – only slightly inaccurately – before Sunday’s encounter: “Welcome to the stadium of the reigning champions of Europe.”

With that Europa League title in the bag for at least another year, and with every possibility that this season could bring more silverware to the south of the city, the Mattress Makers of Madrid will be sleeping soundly for a few more nights yet.

Source: Al Jazeera


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