La Liga Preview: 10 Things You Need to Know about Atletico Madrid

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1. Atlético Madrid are your defending La Liga champions
And that’s crazy. The vast majority of the league’s money from broadcasters gets funneled to Barcelona and Real Madrid, with the two giants “earning” about as much between the two of them as the rest of the league combined. With such a wide gulf in revenue it’s more or less impossible for any other club to challenge for the championship. That makes Atléti’s title win last season—squeezed out with stingy defending, organization, and team unity—something of a modern footballing miracle.

2. They came very, very close to winning the Champions League last season
How close? Mere seconds. And then Sergio Ramos bagged an equalizer deep into the match and forced extra time. Atléti held on as long as they could but were too worn out to fend off their cross-town rivals, and Real Madrid posted three more goals to lift the European Cup for the tenth time.

3. They have trouble holding on to their strikers
At the end of the 2012-13 season Atléti sold their talismanic striker Radamel Falcao to Monaco for a tidy sum. Last season his former strike partner Diego Costa stepped up and provided their main attacking threat as they Iron Manned their way over the line. But like his former teammate, the lure of money and glamor was too much for him, and over the summer he completed a blockbuster move to Chelsea. And of course, there’s homegrown talent Fernando Torres, who parlayed a promising career as an academy prospect made good into a somewhat mixed record in England. On the one hand, it’s great that Los Rojiblancos have developed a reputation for nurturing talent. But it’d be nice if they could hold on to their top players for more than a couple seasons.

4. Their manager is hardcore
You’d almost have to be in order to challenge Barcelona and Real Madrid for the league title with a fraction of the money. But Diego Simeone is a man without fear. He wears all-black suits on the touchline. He gets in people’s faces- opposing managers, players, referees, it doesn’t matter. He inspires fierce loyalty in his players. And his record of success with Atléti- La Liga champions, Copa del Rey winners, Europa League winners, Champions League runners up- speaks for itself.

5. Their new hired gun: Mario Mandžuki?
Only a club like Bayern Munich can look at a player that had 26 goals in a season and deem him surplus to requirements. As it is, the German giants had other options, while the Croatian international never quite felt at home in Pep Guardiola’s system. Now he’s been tapped to lead the line for Atléti—a smart move that quickly hushed the naysayers who said they’d struggle to compete without a proven #9.

6. Koke’s right foot will provide …
The 22-year-old midfielder delivered three La Liga assists in 2011/2, nine in 2012/13 and 13 in 2013/4. Don’t be surprised if Koke sets a new personal best this year.

7. “Antoine Griezmann” is French for “Hey, where did he go?”
He’s young. He has a dubious hairdo. He’s been tearing up Spanish back lines with Real Sociedad. And Atlético Madrid just signed him for €25 million.

Be afraid, La Liga. Be very afraid.

8. Atlético Madrid’s #1 problem is their #1
Atlético Madrid has built a reputation in Spain and Europe as defensive stalwarts. This was due in no small part to their man between the sticks, Thibaut Courtois, there on an extended loan from Chelsea. But Jose Mourinho made it clear over the summer that the Blues needed him back (or at least was unwilling to let him stay with the team that knocked them out of the Champions League), leaving Atléti scrambling to find a replacement goalkeeper. Their solution: 21 year old Slovenian international Jan Oblak, signed from Portuguese champions Benfica. It’s a lot of responsibility for someone so relatively young, but it’s sink or swim time for Oblak—and for Atléti.

9. A crown on their heads, a target on their backs
With Diego Costa gone, and other players sold or out on loan, Atléti’s title defense will be no cakewalk. Their biggest rivals for the league championship have all reloaded, with Barcelona adding Uruguayan troublemaker Luis Suárez and Real Madrid having signed World Cup starlets Toni Kroos and James Rodriguez. It’s possible their best shot at silverware this season may be the Copa del Rey. Of course, if we learned anything last season, it’s that underestimating Atlético Madrid isn’t a smart bet.

10. The title defense starts early
After their first two league fixtures against Rayo Vallecano and newly-promoted Eibar, Atlético Madrid head over to see the neighbors with a clash at the Bernabeu on September 13th. Their return fixture against Real Madrid comes on February 8th. Meanwhile, they’ll take on Barcelona at the Nou Camp on January 11th, and host the Catalan giants in their penultimate league fixture on May 17th.

BONUS: Look at Arda Turan’s beard

Just look at it.

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