Underdogs no more

Is it Atleti's time?

As most know, yesterday was the transfer deadline in much of Europe. The January window is always more sizzle than steak and yesterday was no different.

However, this space isn’t for a Deadline Day round-up. Go to the Daily Sun Guardian for that nonsense. I’m sure there were moves yesterday that will excite fans and appease managers, but there has not been a single trophy won in the history of football by a January transfer. There have, however, been some terrible overspends that have probably cost more than one manager his job over the years though.   

Still, the January transfer window is a day that I always look to in the rhythm of a football season. Not for the moves, but rather the chance it provides to reflect on what we’ve seen so far in the season.

It’s been said that you shouldn’t look at the English table until Boxing Day has come and gone. That’s good advice, but I think it should be backed up even further to the end of January and the end of the window.

That’s especially the case when trying to determine who the favourite is for the Champions League. In most seasons, a clear favourite emerges around this time. Think back to a year ago and it was around now that people started to point to a plucky little team from Munich as likely being the best team in the world.

Not every year sees that declared favourite walk to the title in quite the way that Bayern Munich did last year – if the season wasn’t broken up by COVID-19  I think we are talking about last year’s Munich team as being among the best teams of all-time – but more often than not the eventual winner could be identified around this time. The idea that the Champions League is a crap shot that could be won by anyone is a concept that died around the time that the Spice Girls were topping the charts.

So, who are we looking at this year then?

The obvious place to start would be the team that I just brought up. As expected they have a healthy lead in the Bundesliga table and the talent is just as impressive this year as last. They also have the motivation of putting themselves into that conversation about best ever teams – win again and no one cares about the virus.

But, they just don’t have the same vibe this year. They have already lost the domestic cup and they have looked vulnerable defensively at times. So, nein, Bayern isn’t your favourites this year.

Factor in that the usual suspects – Barcelona and Real Madrid have been (in context) terrible, Liverpool inconsistent and who in their right mind is going to call City or PSG a favourite in this competition until they prove they won’t trip up when it matters most – and it’s tempting to say that there isn’t a favourite.

Except there is. It’s just not a club that one typically thinks of when having conversations like this. They have been overshadowed in their own city for their entire history (although are likely more popular in that city, as is often the case when a city have both a global brand and local club of note) and have come up just short a couple times in memory.

I am, of course, talking about Atletico Madrid. They are the best team in the world right now. They are running away with La Liga, 10 points up on both Barca and that other Madrid side. Most impressively, they have only allowed 10 goals all season.

That defensive strength – something that they’ve been long known for – has been supplemented with an actual offensive bite* this year.

Luis Suarez has rediscovered himself (*sorry, not sorry). The 34-year-old is having his best season since his Liverpool days. If the Ballon d’Or was voted on today it’s hard to argue against him winning it.

All of this is unexpected. A year ago at this time, Suarez, along with the rest of his Barcelona teammates, were underwhelming, while many were openly wondering if Diego Simeone had taken Atleti as far as he could. It was suggested by many that Atleti would need to step back to return to the heights of back-to-back Champions League finals again.

It turns out that Simeone and Atleti were just having a single season of adjustment to allow for a slight tweak in style. They are still a pain in the ass to play and incredible defensively, but now they can punish you on attack as well.

Arguably the biggest roadblock to Atleti finishing off this remarkable season might be their own perceptions of themselves. Despite going to back-to-back Champions League Finals – and being 5 minutes away from winning one of them – and being the clear No 3 team in Spain for a decade now they still view themselves as a small club, always an underdog trying to scrape their way to respect.

That “second team” mentality is hard to get past – hell, Manchester City still has elements of it in its culture, despite being among the richest clubs in the world for more than a decade now. As is the case with City, Atleti might need convince itself that it deserves to be favourites to make the title happen.

But, those of us on the outside should not suffer the same hesitation. Atletico Madrid is a big club and, right now, the best club in the world.