Eleven years ago Atletico Madrid and Manchester City were both playing in the Europa League group stage. Now they are amongst the elite, battling it out for Europe's biggest prize.
For European football clubs, there is no greater honour than winning the Champions League and establishing yourself as the best that the continent has to offer. It is a competition that has seen certain giants dominate over its 66-year history but tonight, two teams that are desperate to add their names to the 22-club list of winners of Europe’s biggest prize meet.
Atletico Madrid and Man City, two of the current chasers in the hunt for European supremacy, are going head-to-head in this year’s quarter-finals. They have both been on meteoric rises over the last 10 years, more or less in synchronisation with one another, just with polar opposite methods.
Before their first-leg meeting at the Etihad Stadium, much was made of Pep Guardiola’s and Diego Simeone’s differing philosophies, and more so after the game in which City emerged as 1-0 winners. Their free-flowing football under Guardiola struggled to find its rhythm against Simeone’s stubborn but resolute defensive shield, which his success with the Colchoneros has been built on ever since he stepped through the doors at their former Vicente Calderon Stadium a decade ago. Both managers’ methods may be different but they both have the trophies to show that they both work efficiently.
City and Atletico’s evolution have been remarkable. In 2010-11, City had to qualify for the Europa League via the play-offs, and Atletico had to do the exact same the season after. Now, it’s almost unheard of that either don’t automatically qualify for the Champions League and it just highlights the progress that they have made since. Simeone has dedicated a decade of his life to Atletico and the success under him has been built from the ground up, while Guardiola inherited a successful, heavily-funded squad and added to it, but he has certainly taken their football to another level.
Simeone’s arrival in the Spanish capital sparked the beginning of their recent rise and no matter what anyone says about the style of football, the supporters have shown nothing but love and adoration for the Argentine. In return, he’s delivered years of great memories, two league titles domestically and has come within a whisker of securing Europe’s greatest prize on two occasions.
Remarkably, he was able to achieve this, particularly in Spain during a time where you had two of the strongest Barcelona and Real Madrid sides in existence battling it out for pretty much everything. When he walked in, the club were a stable top-10 side who had been starved of domestic titles for 16 years. The club were in the Europa League at the time and he guided them to European glory with a rampant 3-0 victory over Athletic Club in the final.
The following year, he got his side competing with the big boys in the Champions League and while Simeone delivered in the Europa League and followed it up with a Copa del Rey and a La Liga title, the 51-year-old has been so close, on two occasions, to lifting the Champions League trophy. Bitter rivals Real Madrid devsastatingly bagged an added time equaliser in 2013-14 (the same year Atleti won the league), and edged them out on penalties in 2015-16. Heartbreaking.
His side have been renowned for their compact 4-4-2 shape which has always made them difficult to break down and devastating on the counter-attack. In the time since Atletico’s last Champions League final appearance, Simeone has delivered a second Europa League title and another La Liga, but they certainly have unfinished business on the grand stage and the same applies to City.
While the Citizens have been on the same sort of journey in the same time period, they haven’t had the luxury of Guardiola being at the helm for as long as Simeone has been in charge of their Spanish opponents. Their rise has been spearheaded by an open expansive style of playing, always on the front foot and that has just intensified significantly when the Spaniard succeeded Manuel Pellegrini. Both he and his predecessors in Pellegrini and Roberto Mancini helped kick-start the last 10 years of domestic dominance but like Atletico, the Champions League has remained elusive to them.
In 2015-16 they were eliminated by eventual winners Real Madrid under Pellegrini and it took a while for Guardiola to get City closer to European glory. In his first season, the best they could do was get to the round of 16, where they were eliminated on away goals by Monaco after a thrilling 6-6 draw on aggregate. They then had their dreams shattered three times in the quarter-finals before reaching last year’s final where they were narrowly beaten 1-0 by Chelsea. Guardiola gambled with a team filled with creative midfielders, lacking cover for the defence, and without a recognised striker.
Both clubs are desperate to become the 23rd club to become the champions of Europe and both have shown that their styles of play are effective enough to get to the final hurdle. They just need to have the composure at that final stage to get over the line, and extinguish the suffering they have experienced in recent years.
Guardiola and Simeone are the masters of their craft, albeit harbouring different philosophies and with that City and Atletico reflect being on two sides of the same coin. They both have excellent pedigree and the experience of winning titles, but both are still chasing their maiden Champions League title for their respective clubs, which would be the crowning jewel of both their tenures and strengthen their legacies.