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Atletico flourish under Flores

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Phil Minshull | 14:10 UK time, Tuesday, 11 May 2010

The headline in Spanish sports daily AS last Friday compressed the recent history of Fulham's Europa League final opponents into one line: "Atletico - from hell to glory in 10 years."

As far the writer was concerned, hell - El Infierno - was the Spanish second division, where Atletico Madrid languished for two frustrating years at the start of the millennium. The reference to glory implies that he thinks that they are about to hoist aloft something of significance for the first time in 14 years.

My alternative title would have been: "Atletico - from hell to glory in barely 10 months."

When I wrote my last blog dedicated to the Los Colchoneros last September, I mused on the fact that the infamous club might be facing the abyss again given that they were, at the time, second from bottom and having a torrid time in the Champions League.

However, credit where it is due, the Atletico side that is finishing this season is not the same one that started it.

The man responsible for their change in fortunes is their coach Quique Sanchez Flores.

QSF, using the acronym that he is often known by in the Spanish media, took over from Abel Resino almost exactly a month to the day after I wrote my last piece on Atletico. Since then, the club's 11th coach in the last 10 years has managed to turn around a previously demoralised and disinterested playing staff.

The man who gives Jose Mourinho a respectable run for his money as the best-dressed coach in Europe has not had the easiest of jobs. Atletico were still struggling until the end of the year, only scraping into the Europa League by the narrowest of margins.

The impeccably dressed Quique Sanchez FloresThe impeccably dressed Quique Sanchez Flores. Photo: Getty Images

They are still maddeningly inconsistent, capable of beating Barcelona on their day and then falling apart at home to bottom side Xerez, as they did a few weeks ago.

However, Sanchez Flores has produced some stirring performances in both the Europa League and Copa Del Rey - the final of the latter against Sevilla will be in Barcelona on 19 May - and cajoled the best out of some of his previously under-performing key players like Diego Forlan and Tomas Ujafalusi.

He has also inspired a return to form from both Simao and Jose Antonio Reyes, two men who have visibly rediscovered their love for the game.

Into the bargain, QSF has unearthed a nugget of gold in 18-year-old goalkeeper David De Gea, who started the season as Atletico's third choice between the posts and could now potentially end up being Spain's third choice goalkeeper in South Africa, and had the guts to put his confidence in him.

The off-field problems still remain - I will not expand on them again as they were covered in my blog back in September - but in the next week or so, QSF and his men have two opportunities to give the long-suffering Atletico supporters a chance to celebrate with a traditional trip to the Neptuno fountains in the centre of Madrid.

It has not been a ritual that has been observed for eight years but, in typical Atletico fashion, even then they managed to frustrate their supporters' ambitions of having a proper party. Needing a home win over relegation-bound Gimnastic Tarragona to clinch promotion on 27 April, 2002, Atletico were held to a 3-3 draw and the cava stayed on ice.

Rather than 40,000 or so supporters streaming across the Spanish capital from the Vicente Calderon and dancing until dawn, Atletico fans had to wait until the following night to celebrate, after results in other matches had gone their way.

Of course, by then, the wind had been taken out of their sails and little more than 1,000 fans turned up to do the honours for their team.

There was undisguised happiness - I was there to take in the scene - but Sunday night is usually a quiet night in Madrid as, like most other places in Europe, the prospect of going to work on Monday overshadows the possibility of too much mayhem.

The photos of that relatively subdued occasion show a fresh-faced 18-year-old Fernando Torres with an unfashionable haircut, sheepishly joining in the celebrations and looking rather like a human incantation of Stan from South Park.

All-in-all, it was a rather anti-climactic affair compared to the revelry that had been originally anticipated for the night before. However, there should be no such restraint on Wednesday if Atletico can beat Roy Hodgson's men and lift their first European trophy since the now-defunct Cup Winners' Cup in 1962.

Atletico fans are planning to have their first full-blooded knees up since Raddy Antic lead them to the Spanish double in 1996 - and to laugh at the expense of local rivals Real, who, as things stand at the moment, are likely to end the season empty-handed.

Real, who celebrate just a few hundred metres further up the road from the Neptuno at the Cibeles fountains, have won La Liga three times, an assortment of Spanish and European Super Cups, as well as the Fifa World Club Cup and Champions League since that night in April 2002.

Raul celebrates Real Madrid's 31st league title at the famous Cibeles fountain in MadridRaul celebrates Real Madrid's 31st league title at the famous Cibeles fountain in Madrid in 2008. Photo: Getty Images

With exquisite and cruel timing, Real also won the last of their nine European titles little more than two weeks after Atletico fans last splashed water over themselves. Colin Shindler wrote in his excellent book 'Manchester United Ruined My Life' about the 1968 season when City won their last League title only for United to trump them a few weeks later by winning the European Cup.

"It was to be a constant factor in my life. Whenever City achieved anything, United were around to ruin it," wrote Shindler. They are a couple of sentences that, I am sure, many Atletico fans can empathise with.

I have been looking for a similar turn of phrase in a Spanish football book but cannot find one, perhaps because Atletico fans have been bludgeoned into submission for too long.

Whether it is this week or next, Atletico may not have to wait much longer to stick the boot into Real, not least their president, Florentino Perez, just as City fans have started dreaming again that sometime soon they may have their day at Sir Alex Ferguson's expense.

Comments on this blog in the space provided. Other questions on European football to: I don't need your full address but please put the town/city and country where you come from.

Here is one from this week's postbag I deliberately chose, since it concerns Real Madrid.

Q) If Real Madrid don't win La Liga, do you think they should strengthen their squad in the summer or can the players they have at the moment do the job next year in either the Spanish league or the Champions League?
Ahad Shaukat, Karachi, Pakistan

A) What I think and what Real president Florentino Perez think are obviously going to be two different things, so I will just concentrate mainly on what I would like to happen not what I actually think will happen.

Firstly, I believe the squad is generally adequate to challenge for both domestic and continent honours. In an ideal world, I would only make three changes. I would get another out-and-out striker as Karim Benzema has not turned out to be the player everyone thought he was going to be when he signed last summer. Another central defender is also needed as cover, while a good defensive midfielder should also be acquired as both Lass and Mahamadou Diarra have lost form. However, I would like to see what Real could do if there is some sense of stability from one season to the next, which there has not been for a long time.

I have also been a critic of coach Manuel Pellegrini this season but I would like to see him stay, even if that appears unlikely.

I would also like to see more players from the reserves given an opportunity. It is worth noting that on Sunday the Real Madrid Juvenil A team, effectively their under-20 team, won the Spanish title for their age group. The squad contains a whole host of super-talented under-18 and under-16 internationals, including a 17-year-old midfielder called Alex Fernandez, who has drawn comparisons with Cesc Fabregas at the same age. Remember that name.


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