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Can Diego Simeone Take Atletico Madrid to the Promised Land?

There can be no denying that the job that Diego Simeone has done at Atletico Madrid since taking over more than a decade ago has been incredible. When the maverick Argentine took the reins at the Vicente Calderon, Los Rojiblancos were languishing in the middle of the La Liga table, without a championship since 1996 and a million miles off the pace of the perennial heavyweights in Real Madrid and Barcelona. Now, 12 years on, Atleti is a major football team in not only Spanish but European football as a whole.

El Cholo has brought not one but two La Liga titles to the club, firstly in the aforementioned Calderon in 2014, and secondly in the brand spanking new Wanda Metropolitano in 2021. He has also won the Europa League twice, as well as the Copa Del Rey and the Spanish Super Cup. There is just one trophy that remains elusive: the UEFA Champions League - and boy has he come close to winning it in the past.

Two Heartbreaks in Three Years

During that stunning 2014 campaign, Atletico Madrid came closer than ever before to lifting the famous big-eared trophy. Domestically, their workmanlike side stunned everybody as it popped both Barcelona and Real Madrid on the final day of the season to win La Liga, securing a deserved point at the Nou Camp to seal the title. They also reached the Champions League final that year. Victories against AC Milan, the aforementioned Barca, and Jose Mourinho's Chelsea secured their place in the Lisbon showpiece, where they would meet their cross-city rivals Real in the first-ever one-city Champions League final.

While Atletico were in the midst of their Cinderella story, Los Blancos were also on a collision course with destiny to claim that elusive La Decima. And when Sergio Ramos netted a last-gasp equalizer, Atleti finally ran out of steam, succumbing to a 4-1 defeat after extra time. Two years later, a nervy semifinal victory against Bayern Munich, which has some impressive players at high salaries on its side, punched their ticket to the final once more. This time, it was held at the San Siro, with Real waiting in the wings once again.

Two years prior, they made it all the way to extra time, and this time around, they made it further than that, with their contest going all the way to a penalty shootout. Unfortunately, someone had to lose, and for the second time in three seasons, it was their hearts about to be broken again. Juanfran was the unlucky man. He saw his spot-kick hit the post, allowing Cristiano Ronaldo to sweep home and begin Real Madrid's unprecedented threepeat.

Eight years on and both Simeone and his players haven't come any closer to the crown. However, this season, that could all be set to change.

All To Play for in the Champions League

Just as it was last season, one half of the Champions League draw is wide open, while the other looks like a much more difficult route. Last term at the quarterfinals stage, any one-off Inter Milan, AC Milan, Benfica, and Napoli could have contested the final in Istanbul. This term, it is any one of Atletico, Borussia Dortmund, Paris Saint-Germain, and Barcelona. On the other side of the draw come the four front runners for the crown, led by Manchester City, which online soccer odds providers have made the short priced +160 favorites. They are closely followed by compatriots Arsenal (+550), Bayern Munich (+700), and Real Madrid (+700).

Atletico, meanwhile, are priced at odds of +900, and those odds were even longer before their 2-1 quarter-final first-leg victory against Borussia Dortmund. However, goals from Rodrigo De Paul and Samuel Lino have left them with one foot in the semifinals, and they will be aiming to finish the job at Signal Iduna Park in a fortnight. Should they emerge victorious, then they will meet either PSG or Barcelona in the final four, with the latter picking up a 3-2 victory at the Parc De Princes in the first leg.

Should Atleti make it past Die Schwarzgelben, then they will certainly fancy their chances against either of the two teams that await them in the semis. Barcelona isn’t the team of old, with the days of Lionel Messi, Neymar, and Luis Suarez firmly in the rearview mirror. Simeone has mastered victories against the Blaugrana in both their previous runs to the final, and he will be confident that he can repeat the feat this term. Should it be the Parisians, then it is firmly a case of keeping Kylian Mbappe quiet, and if they can do exactly that, then a spot in the Wembley showpiece is theirs for the taking.

While they may not care who they face in the semis, one team that Atletico will certainly be hoping to avoid in the final is their archrivals Real. Los Blancos seemingly have their neighbors under their spell, especially in European competition, and a third Champions League final defeat at their hands may be too much for some of the Atleti faithful to handle.

Published by Patrick Jane