Liverpool v Arsenal. Lewis Hamilton v Felipe Massa. Scott Pilgrim v Gideon. There’s nothing like a great winner-takes-all battle.
This weekend Atlético Madrid travel to Camp Nou to face Barcelona, knowing that their destiny is in their hands over the coming weeks. Less than 10-days from now they could be La Liga and European champions against all the odds. Alternatively they could be trophiless and poised to lose their most prized asset Diego Costa.
As Diego Simeone’s Rojiblancos prepare for the double-header against Barça and Real Madrid, parallels can be drawn with Klaus Toppmöller’s famous Bayer Leverkusen side of the 2001-02 season. At this stage in the campaign they were still on course for a potential treble – top of the Bundesliga and with domestic and European finals around the corner – but they lost it all.
Barcelona win – 1.79
Atlético win – 4.10
Draw – 3.50
(All odds provided by GR88.com are accurate as of today and subject to change)
The last decade and a half in German football has not quite been dominated by Bayern Munich, but when the Bavarian club have been at there best it has been tough for anyone to stop them. The likes of Stuttgart and Werder Bremen saw off an under-par Bayern during the 2000s, but only two sides have come close to stopping the 24-time champions: Jürgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund and Toppmöller’s Leverkusen.
Captained by Germany international Carsten Ramelow, Leverkusen would have five players in the Nationalmannschaft the World Cup and a further six (Yıldıray Baştürk, Frankie Hejduk, Lúcio, Diego Placente, Jurica Vranješ and Boris Živković) also involved in Japan and South Korea over the summer. Atlético are likely to have just one fewer going to Brazil this year, if you include on-loan goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.
With four games remaining the title looked sewn up – a penalty from goalkeeper Hans-Jörg Butt set up a 2-0 win over local rivals 1. FC Köln, leaving them four points clear of second-placed Dortmund, and the following week the gap would extend to five. Two years prior an own goal from midfielder Michael Ballack in the final game had cost Leverkusen the title, but surely it couldn’t slip again, especially with Bayern out of the picture.
However a dramatic collapse, highlighted by defeats at home to Werder Bremen and away in Nürnberg, meant Dortmund could even afford to lose a game en route to stealing the title from Toppmöller’s men via a nervy final-day win. However all was not lost for the runners-up – they still had finals coming up in the DFB-Pokal and Champions League.
First came the domestic cup and a 4-2 defeat to Schalke, with a first-half goal from young striker Dimitar Berbatov being cancelled out by Jorg Böhme on the stroke of half-time before three second-half strikes ended the contest. However if Leverkusen were partly responsible for their own domestic failings, defeat on the European stage was hardly their fault. A majestic volley from Zinedine Zidane clinched a 2-1 victory for Real, handing the Spanish side their ninth European Cup, and they will continue to chase that elusive Decima this month against Atlético.
Like Leverkusen in 2002, if Simeone’s side are unable to clinch the title they will only have themselves to blame. They have been top since late March but have recently begun to slip with defeat to Levante and a draw at home to Málaga. A point will be enough to help them stumble over the line, but failure to do so may well impact upon the following weekend’s encounter with Real Madrid in Lisbon.
As with Leverkusen, there is danger of this Atlético side being dismantled after the season ends. They had already lost Falcao last summer but Diego Costa and David Villa have proved more than capable of filling the Colombian’s shoes. Whether they will be able to start again if Costa completes a mooted move to Chelsea this summer is the question on everyone’s lips.
Both Ballack and Zé Roberto moved to Bayern after the 2002 World Cup, while the next couple of years also saw talismanic striker Ulf Kirsten hang up his boots and Lúcio and Živković also depart. Similarly, Atléti may well lose out-of-contract midfielders Diego and Tiago this summer in addition to Costa.
While this is unlikely to be the end of the road for the individual members of the squad, 2014 could be Atlético Madrid’s last chance to break up the duopoly of Barcelona and Real Madrid. They have the ability, but can they pull out the performances when it really matters?
Betting Instinct tip – Diego Costa to sign off with the first goal in what could be his last La Liga appearance is 5.00 with GR88.com
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TOM VICTOR (editor) is the editor and co-founder of Betting Instinct. He has written for a variety of sports sites in the past, including JustFootball, Footy Matters and BeNeFoot. You can follow him on Twitter or Google+.