Atletico Madrid Champions League favorite
Diego Simeone and Marcos Llorente celebrate Atletico Madrid's win over Liverpool in the Champions League. Peter Powell/EPA.

Last summer, Diego Simeone made no secret of his desire to change Atletico Madrid. Of course, the Argentine had already changed Atleti, taking a club forever in the shadow of Spain’s traditional big two and making them giants in their own right, but such remarkable success was underpinned by an underdog spirit Simeone was all too keen to revel in.

As Simeone entered his eighth full season in charge in the Spanish capital, however, it became clear Atletico Madrid had to move on and develop their identity as a team and a club. Underdogs don’t tend to sign Portuguese teenagers like Joao Felix for €126 million and play in shimmering, state-of-the-art stadiums like the Wanda Metropolitano.

It was with this admission that Atletico Madrid all but accepted that the 2019/20 season would be a transitional one, with Simeone publicly stating his aim to turn his team into a more expansive, dynamic outfit. That ideological transition has been more painful than anticipated, though. Even Simeone would surely admit that.

The 2019/20 season witnessed such a profound nadir that Atletico Madrid fans even questioned Simeone for a period over the winter as the capital side lost four in five, drawing the other one at home a 10-man Leganes. The argument was made by some at the time that Atleti didn’t need a new style of play, but a new figure in the dugout.

Such momentary clamour dissipated as Simeone fronted up for his team’s failings, admitting that his intended transition hadn’t quite gone to play. This led to a back-to-basics approach that saw Atletico Madrid knock Liverpool out of the Champions League, coming from behind to beat the reigning European champions in a 3-2 second leg thriller at Anfield.

This was a victory that reminded many, maybe some within the Atletico Madrid dressing room, of Simeone’s big game mastery. It proved that while Atleti might not be able to paint themselves as underdogs any longer, many of the values and principles that sustained them at the top level of the sport can still be applied.

Since that win on Merseyside, Atletico Madrid are unbeaten, winning seven of 11 La Liga games to finish as Spain’s third best team. They have once again become a dreadfully difficult side to beat, even claiming a 2-2 draw at the Camp Nou that effectively ended Barcelona’s title hopes. They are once again a reflection of their manager and spiritual leader, Simeone.

What looked like being a season to forget for Atleti could now become the most memorable season in their history, with Simeone’s team among the Champions League form sides as the competition’s quarterfinals come into sight. The triumph over Liverpool back in March has proved to be a turning point in Atletico Madrid’s season.

It might even have been a turning point in the career of Marcos Llorente, the central midfielder who scored twice at Anfield and has since been user as an attacker to great effect. The Spaniard, signed from Real Madrid last summer, has struggled to find a role for himself in Simeone’s side, but is now one of Atleti’s most important players, with his creativity and movement crucial to getting the best out of others around him.

Diego Costa looks rejuvenated with Llorente filling the space around him, while Koke has found a rich vein of form, allowed to focus on his duties in starting attacking moves from deep rather than picking the final pass on the edge of the box. Yannick Carrasco, whose return to Atletico Madrid in January was met with surprise, has even managed to contribute, providing Simeone with another option in the attacking third.

Concerns remain over Atleti’s centre back foundation, but they are now being afforded more protection, with Simeone no longer relying on Koke and Thomas Partey as double pivots. Meanwhile, Renan Lodi and Kieran Trippier have sharpened their contribution in the full back positions, with the latter’s crossing and set piece deliveries giving Atleti another weapon.

Along with Bayern Munich, Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain, Atleti must be considered among the frontrunners to win this season’s Champions League such is the strength of their form since the restart. Their quarterfinal draw against an RB Leipzig who will now be without Timo Werner gives them a real chance of making the semi-finals. Even against more formidable foes, Atletico have proved that they can win—the victory at Anfield proved there are still few better at pulling one-off results than Simeone. Atletico Madrid’s ideological transition might not have gone to plan, but El Cholo's improvisation may produce something far better.