Spanish football expert Graham Hunter explains why Jose Mourinho could have a say in where the brilliant Radamel Falcao is sold – and why Atlético Madrid are about to undergo football’s version of the ‘Tourmalet’…
Twas the night before the night before Christmas but Santa brought Atlético Madrid a present anyway.
His name was Diego Pablo Simeone – slayer of David Beckham, slayer of reputations. Hardman.
The Argentinian was the knuckleduster in football boots at the throbbing, heart of Atlético’s midfield last time they won the Spanish league – back in the ‘Double’ season of 1995/6 under Raddy Antic.
Los Colchoneros were in a mess and Simeone, an Atlético fanatic, had been making eyes at his old team for months and months. Finally the old duffers at the Calderon took the hint and here, nearly one year on from that auspicious date of December 23 2011, Madrid’s second team are a proper force to be reckoned with.
Their UEFA Europa league triumph last season was impressive but topped off with a brutal, thrilling and utterly forensic dismantling of Athletic Bilbao in the final – it was like putting a starving bull mastiff in a small room with a sleepy lamb.
In terms of a match is was the embodiment of the Simeone spirit – muscle, mentality, intelligence and intensity.
This term his lads have continued their all-out assault on their reputation as a fragile, fair-weather powderpuff of a club. However, before Simeone can put flame to a Cohiba and celebrate 365 days in the job of his dreams he and Atlético are about to go through football’s version of the Tour de France Tourmalet.
Gradient 1:10, only for winners – wimps needn’t get on their bike
This weekend at Atletico it’s Sevilla , fresh from their mauling of Real Betis – 5-1 in the city derby. Then it’s the Chamber of Doom – that five mile trip along the banks of the Manzanares river then cruising up Paseo de la Castellano until it looms over them, the Santiago Bernabéu. Atlético haven’t defeated Real Madrid at home or away since Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink was their key man in the relegation season of 1999. Thirteen years of pain and humiliation. Moreover it’s nearly 14 years since they went into a derby ahead of Madrid in La Liga. (not that it helped them avoid a 4-2 defeat!)
So if this is their ‘Tourmalet’ (literaly ‘Bad Trip) then who could possibly be next on the ascent? World Champions FC Barcelona of course – at the Camp Nou.
Sevilla, who defeated Atletico in the Copa Del Rey final of 2011, Madrid who keep their neighbours in a gimp mask in the cellar, and Barcelona who have regularly run up four, five and six-goal wins over Los Rojiblancos in recent seasons plus an away Uefa tie in Pilsen and a Copa tie against Jaen – all before Christmas. A test of fire.
But Atletico are a twin-engined winning machine at the moment.
Working under Simeone’s demanding control is the world’s best No9 striker (pictured above lifting the Europa League Cup with FC Porto in Dublin). With apologies and respect to Robin Van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Mario Gomez, Zlatan and their ilk, if you accept that Messi and Ronaldo play in different positions, then Radamel Falcao is the best centre-forward on the planet. By miles.
His team mate Filipe Luis says of ‘the Tiger’ (Falcao’s nickname for years now)…
He’s our barometer. If he’s fine, working hard, fighting for us then the team’s just like him – on top. He’s a natural leader, born with that quality which is why, goals aside, he’s converted into one of our captains. He gets a tough time – he’s so dangerous that opponents constantly kick him, pull his shirt, punch him and the officials don’t blow for enough fouls. I know it really hacks him off. But we are flying, the team is in great shape and we are all loving the way we play.
Antic, who won that red and white double in wonderful style back in 1996 says: “I’m enchanted by the way Falcao plays, how hard he works but above all how he’s become the symbol for all the players in this group to unite behind. Sometimes you get a guy whose play and personality are so good that it becomes contagious for the rest of the squad and he just naturally becomes their leader.
That’s what I see in Falcao and what’s even more exciting is that there’s more to come from him. I see some similarities in this team if you compare it to mine which won the league and the cup in 1996. The hunger, the work and the quality of the football. Will they win the title? All I’d say is that right now they aren’t inferior to any side in the league and nothing they are doing invites doubts.
But without being contrary there are some doubts to deal with before we can think of Atlético as potential champions, potential double … even treble winners.
The next four weeks will be a brilliant litmus test of the squad.
But another doubt is … what if Falcao is injured? Tellingly, Simeone left him out of the Uefa squad again this week and said: “We’ve scored in almost all our games in all competitions and that’s true even when I’ve rested El Tigre. Arda has added three goals, there are scorers across the squad and not to depend so, so much on Falcao is fantastic.”
Finally, the BIG question. How quickly will the Colombian be sold; how much Atletico actually paid for him, to what degree he is owned by the Madrilenos; and to what degree by investors in his agent’s company is a subject which is much debated in Spain.
If Atletico only part own Falcao, something which is both normal and legal in many countries, then under that hypothesis it would be for his agent and the investors to dictate when, to whom and for how much he’s sold.
The petrodollar clubs, Manchester City, PSG and Chelsea are lining up – they’d be fools not to.
Jorge Mendes, Falcao’s agent, is certainly shrewd enough to consider where another principal client, Jose Mourinho, will be for the next few seasons before helping the striker decide his own destination. So, potentially, add Real Madrid to the queue of suitors. A Christmas move, just as Simeone celebrates a year with the Tiger – you’d think not. But a move soon, nonetheless. In the summer almost certainly.
For the moment he’ll need to help push Atlético up Tourmalet – what lies at the summit, glory, adoration and a multi-million-pound move to the English Premier League, should make Falcao a formidable opponent for Sevilla, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Co this coming month.
Graham Hunter is a Barcelona-based, British soccer writer whose passionate insight on La Liga can regularly be seen and heard on TV and radio. He also writes for the Paddy Power Blog on Spanish football. Follow Graham on twitter here.