By Mark Doyle
In the run-up to Saturday’s Champions League final, Atletico Madrid midfielder Tiago compared coach Diego Simeone to God. “Everything he says comes true,” the midfielder enthused. Unfortunately, unlike the Almighty, the Argentine is not infallible. As Saturday’s Champions League so painfully proved.
One could understand why Simeone decided to take a risk on Diego Costa in Lisbon. The Brazil-born Spain international is Atletico’s top scorer, their principal attacking threat. Therefore, Simeone was desperate for Costa to start; so desperate that the striker was sent to Belgrade this week to undergo a revolutionary treatment involving the use of horse placenta. When the forward’s name appeared on the Atletico teamsheet for the final in Lisbon, it appeared as if Simeone had worked another miracle. However, the selection was a gamble that backfired badly.
The thinking must have been that it would be better to risk Costa from the start because if the player broke down Atletico would at least have a player to replace him. If, on the other hand, Costa was thrown on in the closing stages as Atletico’s final throw of the dice, they would be left with 10 men if the striker’s hamstring tensed up once again.
However, in the end, Costa’s inclusion from the off proved a costly error of judgement in what looked like being another otherwise flawless Simeone strategy. The 25-year-old lasted just eight minutes and 50 seconds before being forced off.
The Rojiblancos took the lead through Diego Godin nine minutes before the break and never really looked like relinquishing their lead. They restricted Madrid, one of the most expensively assembled sides in history, to a handful of openings, while the only clear goalscoring opportunity they afforded their rivals came courtesy of a misplaced pass from Tiago.
Even Atletico's foul play was intelligent, with both Raul Garcia and Miranda cynically – but sensibly – picking up yellow cards for taking down Angel di Maria while the winger was bearing down on goal.
Ultimately, they were just 90 seconds away from being crowned champions of Europe for the first time - just seven days after becoming champions of Spain for the first time since 1996. However, once Sergio Ramos headed home an equaliser with just 90 seconds of normal time remaining there was only ever going to be one winner.
By that stage, Atletico had already made all of their substitutes. A small squad assembled at a cost of just €79.05 million (Madrid’s, to put things in perspective, is worth €521.9m) had nothing left to give. Juanfran was out on his feet and it was no surprise that his tired legs were exposed for the second and third goals. Indeed, the difference between the two sides was perfectly illustrated by the way in which one of Madrid’s subs, Marcelo, strolled past Atletico’s statuesque midfield to fire home the goal that killed the game.
Nothing should take away from what Atletico have achieved this season. That was why the collapse which so many have been predicting was so difficult to watch when it finally arrived, particularly as Simeone had contributed so directly to their downfall.
“I want to thank the mothers of my players for giving birth to players with such big balls,” the Argentine had stated after the semi-final success over Chelsea. This is a coach who champions bravery above all other virtues.
However, there is, as they say, a fine line between bravery and stupidity. And, unfortunately, he crossed it by selecting a clearly unfit Costa on Saturday night. He clearly knew it too. He was visibly upset by something that Raphael Varane had done in the dying seconds but Simeone must have been more upset with himself for the mistake he had made earlier when naming his starting line-up.
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