Forever in the shadow of Real, Atleti’s fans have become more used to lows than highs. This looked like another disappointing season as they fell to the foot of the table and out of the Champions League after qualifying for the first time in 13 years.
But Atleti have two special characteristics. One is a passionate hatred and contempt for Real Madrid. The other is that they have become Barcelona’s bogeymen.
At home anyway. In Barcelona, Atleti take on the appearance of a drowning man — 14 goals conceded in their last three meeting at Camp Nou tells the story. But the Vicente Calderon Stadium in Madrid is like a genuine cauldron as far as Barcelona are concerned.
Beaten 4-2 two years ago, last season they lost an unbelievable match 4-3. Playing in an unfamiliar yellow strip — possibly now locked away in the Dali museum — Barca were 2-0 and then 3-2 up and conceded the winner two minutes from time.
The champions were already expecting a difficult game on Sunday, even before a spate of injuries and two suspensions left them with only one first-choice defender, captain Carles Puyol.
“I’d have preferred it had they had those injuries in midfield and up front,” said Atleti’s coach Quique Sanchez Flores before the game.
“No excuses,” declared Pep Guardiola, but you could sense that the Barca coach was apprehensive.
Rightly so. It was a freezing night, and Barcelona were unrecognisable, even though this time they were playing in their normal kit.
Within five minutes Seydou Keita had limped off. Within 10 minutes Diego Forlan scored after being put through by Jose Antonio Reyes.
For the first team this season Barca were a goal down in a league game and while understandably jittery at the back, they could hardly string three passes together in midfield. After 26 minutes the score was 2-1 to the home side, and there it stayed as Messi was outshone by Atleti’s own Argentinian magician Sergio Aguero.
None of Barcelona’s stars could come to terms with the energy and pressing of Atletico’s midfield, where another former Premier League player, Tiago, was running the show alongside Paulo Assuncao, once of Porto.
For Atleti it set the seal on a fantastic week, as they also reached the final of the Copa Del Rey. For Barca the issue is whether this first league defeat is simply a blip.
“We always win the league when we lose to Atletico,” said president Joan Laporta, and they will have some of their six missing defenders back shortly. At the same time they have now lost their main playmaker Xavi for a couple of weeks, as well as Keita, and they probably have a harder run-in than Real Madrid.
Above all they still have to go to the Bernabeu in April, and Madrid’s performance in Barcelona showed the two sides are very evenly matched, even though they lost 1-0.
Atletico’s win also demonstrated how Barcelona can be beaten. With the wingers tracking back, they usually had four against three in midfield and denied Barca time and space. That would be a very different proposition with Dani Alves and Eric Abidal providing width and attacking options from full back. Atletico exploited Barcelona’s injuries with intelligence.
“It was bound to happen eventually,” said Johan Cruyff yesterday, who believes “calmness, professionalism and maintaining a common purpose” will see the team through.
This was their first defeat in 23 league games, falling just short of the record set by Fabio Capello’s Madrid side 13 years ago. But it shows that a combination of midfield pressing and pace in attack will create problems even for this superb Barcelona team, and that will provide encouragement for their potential opponents in the Champions League as well as La Liga.