It’s quite a testimony to just how far Atletico Madrid have come under Diego Simeone that in four years of Champions League football, they have lost to just one club.
Of course, fierce city rivals Real Madrid are the club who would be at the very bottom of any list for Los Rojiblancos fans and it is a rivalry which has defined recent Champions League tournaments like no other.
First it was the heartbreak of Lisbon in 2014 where a Sergio Ramos 93rd minute leveler denied Atleti of a scarcely believable La Liga and European ‘double’, and a year later it was the 88th minute of the quarter final second leg when Javier Hernandez scored the only goal of a tense double header.
Los Colchoneros marched to the final of 2016 and were widely regarded as the tournament’s most impressive team, seeing off tournament favourites Barcelona and Bayern Munich before the final hurdle was a painful penalty shootout loss to their nearest and not-so-dearest.
Rumours abound that the Argentine coach would leave the club, taking the somewhat bizarre move of reducing his long-term contract and constantly linked with a move elsewhere. He had taken them as far as he could, it was claimed, and it was time for a change, perhaps to Inter Milan.
But whilst the northern Italian city was once the undisputed capital of European football, the power shift to Madrid has been notable and emphatic in recent years with both clubs, generally speaking, existing amicably at board level and not going head-to-head with transfer battles (helped somewhat by both receiving recent FIFA transfer bans.
The last direct, high-profile transfer between the clubs was Argentine Santiago Solari back in 2000, while Atleti’s in-demand Antoine Griezmann explained in an interview with Téléfoot back in November that a non-agression ‘pact’ existed between the clubs meaning players would no longer switch.
“It’s true that I love to win titles…but I couldn’t go to Real Madrid, not with the rivalry that exists and there’s also a pact between the clubs,” he stated.
Recent months however have seen relations sour, the recent Champions League semi-final clash between the clubs – with Los Blancos making it four triumphs from four – was played to the backdrop of a transfer saga involving Theo Hernandez; Atleti’s teenage French full-back who is yet to play for the club.
Enjoying a stellar debut season with Alaves in the top flight, Theo – who’s older brother Lucas recently signed a new long-term deal with Atletico – has won plaudits both in Spain and beyond. The 19-year-old’s mix of defensive awareness and attacking intent has been noted by a number of leading European clubs, who see him as one of Europe’s fastest emerging talents.
However, this is where the problems arise. Theo had not been afforded a minute’s first-team football at the Vicente Calderon and was none too happy over his lack of first-team opportunities, while his release clause of €24 million will not price out any suitors.
‘How does it feel to have lost two Champions League finals?’ read the club-sanctioned banner at the Bernabeu ahead of this season’s semi-final first leg. The following week, Atleti responded with one of their own – ‘Proud not to be like you’. These were fan-driven displays, but would had to have been given the green light by the clubs. Amicable this was not.
Two days prior to the second leg, multiple reports across the Spanish press stated Theo had passed his medical at the Bernabeu in news which appeared to come as a surprise to both his parent club and to Alaves, with suspicion across Spain that the timing of such press reports served only to rile Atleti.
“We have no intention of selling any player, but if another club comes with an offer which could be interesting to a player, they should talk to us,” Rojiblancos president Enrique Cerezo had told El Larguero the previous week.
“I always say that players will play where they want to play. If a player is ready to be transferred, then they can look for whatever club they want. Theo is an Atletico Madrid player. If he is not tomorrow then we will find out why.”
For now, Theo’s future is still relatively unclear – there has been no confirmation from the player, the clubs or any representatives that any deal has been concluded, despite constant media speculation. However, his Alaves team-mate Marcos Llorente appeared to actually confirm Hernandez’s move to Real in a post match interview:
“I’m sure that he’ll be very happy in Real Madrid & he will succeed there.”
Such a move risks threatening a long-term gentleman’s agreement between the clubs and will once again throw Griezmann’s possible future into the spotlight. Regardless of where the highly-talented full-back begins next season, he will face a fight for a place with a highly-talented Brazilian, but whether that is Filipe Luis or Marcelo remains to be seen.