Simeone on verge of greatnessComment on this story
Lisbon - The Champions League final is the pinnacle of club football, a game that defines reputations and creates legends.
For Diego Simeone, Atletico Madrid’s manager, Saturday night’s collision with Real Madrid in Lisbon presents him with an opportunity to put the gloss on an extraordinary season and complete what could be the greatest managerial achievement of all time.
When you look at the distinguished names who have lifted the biggest trophy of all — Rinus Michels, Sir Matt Busby and Bob Paisley, through to Arrigo Sacchi, Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola — to say Simeone is potentially 90 minutes away from outstripping them all might seem bold.
But this is all about context and what Simeone has achieved since he became Atletico manager on December 23, 2011 is extraordinary.
If he is to mastermind another victory over his neighbours, who are the richest club in the world, Simeone would stand alone.
These are the reasons.
Atletico are a big club but they are not one of the giants of Europe, like Barcelona or Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, the Milan clubs or Manchester United and Liverpool, where success at home and in Europe is demanded.
There have been shock winners of the European Cup before, such as Steaua Bucharest (1986), PSV Eindhoven (1988), Red Star Belgrade (1991) and Porto (2004), but Atletico would be unlike them because they had not had a sustained spell as the dominant team in their own league. They are different, also, from Rafa Benitez’s Valencia team, the last club outside Real and Barca to win La Liga.
Benitez’s work cannot be knocked but Valencia had not come from nowhere, as they had played in two consecutive Champions League finals (2000 and 2001) under Hector Cuper.
Think about the position Atletico were in when Simeone was appointed.
They were 10th in La Liga, but just four points off relegation, and were struggling after selling their prize assets Sergio Aguero and David de Gea to ease mounting tax debts.
Under Simeone, though, the rise has been relentless and rapid. He capped his first six months in charge by winning the Europa League, as Atletico beat Bilbao 3-0, having overseen a rise in La Liga that took them to fifth place.
The European Super Cup, thanks to a 4-1 dismantling of Chelsea, and the Copa del Rey followed in 2012-13. But this is the campaign where Simeone has really worked his magic, resulting in Atletico’s stunning triumph in La Liga, their first domestic title since he was a player in 1995-96.
Do not underestimate the size of this feat. Money is no object to Barca and Real, while they have the world’s two best players in Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, yet Atletico won on merit with 90 points. Their performance to clinch the title in the Nou Camp last Saturday had class stamped over it.
So now it is on to the final hurdle and the men Simeone should be measured against are Brian Clough, and Alex Ferguson — during his time with Aberdeen.
Ferguson’s story at Aberdeen is remarkable. He broke up the Old Firm’s dominance of the Scottish First Division and led Aberdeen, against the odds, to beat Real Madrid in the 1983 European Cup-Winners’ Cup final but, unlike Atletico, they never made their mark in the European Cup.
Clough and Nottingham Forest, by contrast, certainly did. It is incredible to think, given where they are now, that Forest have won as many European Cups as Juventus, Porto and Benfica — what they managed between 1977 and 1980 simply wouldn’t be possible in the modern era.
From third place in the old Second Division, Forest became champions of England before winning, then retaining, the European Cup. Their success came during a golden era for English clubs in Europe, as aside from Liverpool’s four victories, Aston Villa also won it.
Forest added the European Super Cup and two League Cups in that glittering period, but Clough had financial help and was able to build on success — he famously made Trevor Francis, scorer of the winning goal in the 1979 European Cup, England’s first £1million player.
Atletico, by contrast, are a selling club, with debts last reported to be in excess of €167million (£135m). Simeone lost Radamel Falcao last summer but he took that in his stride. Results never suffered and he made Diego Costa one of the most feared strikers in Europe. He will find another gem once the Chelsea-bound Costa goes the way of Aguero and Falcao.
Simeone will never be a favourite for the purists, given the style Atletico favour, but it is impossible to argue given what they have done in the last two-and-a-half years.
Ferguson once said that a team embody their manager’s character and that is absolutely true of Atletico — not one player will ever shirk the relentless work ethic that Simeone had during his own playing career.
There will be questions for Simeone to answer in the future, if and when he moves on, about whether he will be able to replicate his success at the Vicente Calderon with a bigger club, as he would have to change his style to be more open and attractive.
For the moment that can wait. There are so many strands to this Champions League final, from whether Cristiano Ronaldo can fulfil his destiny to whether Carlo Ancelotti can emulate Paisley and become the second manager to win three European Cups.
Should Simeone land his first, however, the achievement would put him out on his own.