By Sid Lowe
May 05, 2010

Atletico Madrid face second-bottom Valladolid Wednesday, the team that's won just six times all season, and it's Valladolid everyone expects to win. But Atletico doesn't mind. It expects Valladolid to win too -- and it won't be bursting any blood vessels to ensure otherwise.

One first-team insider insists, "it's not like we want to make fools of ourselves," but admits it's hard to be bothered. Atletico has lost four of its last five league games, six of its last nine, but the most you'll get is a shrug. As La Liga enters the final 10 days, the last 30 games defining the season for teams across Spain, Atletico is one of just three with nothing to play for. But no one cares a bit.

Look at the league table and the conclusion is inescapable: Atletico Madrid are not very good. They are 10th, won only a third of their games and their goal difference is minus three. Their role is has been limited to doing what they can't help doing but always end up doing: aiding their hated city rivals Real Madrid. Atletico is the only side that have beaten Barcelona in the league this season; last season they were one of only two sides to do so. Yet since returning to the top flight following relegation in 2000, Atletico has not been able to beat Real even though 60 different teams have, and beating Barcelona didn't do Atletico much good.

It did, though, do Real the power of good -- Cristiano Ronaldo and Co. can return to just a point behind Barca if they beat Mallorca tonight. A league campaign without Atletico would have the title race already wrapped up in Barcelona's favor. If Real Madrid do win the league, the first thing president Florentino Perez should do is gratefully drive a truck of cash round to the Vicente Calderon. "Every year, we gift Real Madrid nine points," sighed Atletico Madrid's president Enrique Cerezo earlier this season. "The six we lose to them and the three we take off Barcelona." It hurts, but no other team has been such a faithful servant for Real.

Only it doesn't hurt that much. Not this time. No one is slitting their wrists, no one is banging on about Atletico's jinx. The fans who gathered outside the Vicente Calderon in the cold and wet of Tuesday night were far from down, joking and laughing and playing cards. And when the media gathered round Cerezo the night before, far from bemoaning his luck, he declared Atletico "Spain's most fashionable side." In fact, he said, "we are the country's best team this season."

Nonsense, of course. Atletico has 50 points fewer than Barca and was humiliated in the Champions League, where they couldn't beat Cypriot side Apoel; they have lost 22 times this season. But while on the face of it this has been a desperately poor season, these are glorious days for Atletico. The best Atletico has experienced for over a decade. Some argue the best ever. On Tuesday fans queued overnight to make sure they got tickets. This time next week, Atletico will be preparing for the Europa League final against Fulham in Hamburg; the week after, preparing for the Copa del Rey final against Sevilla in Barcelona.

The question is: how? Over the last few weeks everyone has asked: how do you explain the difference in Atletico's league form and its success in the Cups?

The answer is simpler than people seem to want to believe; there's no great secret. And it is not because they changed coach, or at least not only because of that -- Atletico have improved since Quique Sanchez Flores took over from Abel Resino but his league record still reads: won 11, drawn 3, lost 14.

With just one victory by Atletico in the first 11 games, the league had slipped away so early that Atletico was always playing catch up, all too aware of the impossible task ahead. Motivation was killed, defeatism unavoidable. But with the players Atletico has -- Diego Forlan, Sergio Aguero, Jose Antonio Reyes and Simao Sabrosa would grace any forward line -- cup competitions offered a fresh start, an attainable goal. It's not so much that Atletico's form has changed but that the format has. In particular, the fact that both cup competitions are two-legged, with away goals the deciding factor.

In the Copa del Rey, Atletico reached the final having played just one First Division team, relegation-threatened Racing de Santander, and despite being hammered by Second Division Recreativo de Huelva. It got a shot at the Europa League by virtue of being pathetic in the Champions League, failing to win a single match, but not quite pathetic enough to finish bottom of its group. And in the Europa League, it has won twice in eight games. Away goals that took them through against Sporting Lisbon, Valencia and Liverpool. If it was a league table, its two-tournament, season-long European campaign would read: won 2, drawn 8, lost 4. That's relegation form.

There has been fortune too: a Liverpool goal wrongly ruled offside, a penalty not given for a tug on Nikola Zigic -- so blatant that that it tore his shirt in half but not blatant enough for the ref to see it in the previous round against Valencia.

For years, Atletico Madrid fans complained about refereeing decisions, citing conspiracies and vested interests. They would argue they were due some help. And anyway, they just don't care. Why should they? They only care about one thing: the club that has not been in a final at all for 10 years, suddenly finds itself in two of them. Atletico is in a European final for the first time since 1986. The club that has won nothing since 1996 has two chances to bring some success to the club at last. The club that has not won a Europe award since 1962 -- although it did win the World Club Cup after finishing European Cup runners up in 1974 -- has the opportunity to finally end a wait that has gone on for almost half a century.

It is those long, painful waits that make it even better. The fact that the third most successful club in the history of Spanish football is finally enjoying success again makes it more momentous. So does the prospect of Atletico winning two titles while its gloating neighbours, winners of five leagues and three European Cups since 96, win just one. Or better still, none at all. The best things come to those who wait, and Atletico has waited a hell of a long time.

Atletico's fans pride themselves on commitment, on confronting the world. Former icon Fernando Torres, now with Liverpool, once claimed that the suffering, the feeling, the loyalty and the hurt that makes successes taste even better when they arrive, meaning that they really enjoy the moment. Unlike Real Madrid, who just feel entitled to win. The cruel would ask: how do you know? Torres, a lifelong Atletico fan, sadly never tasted success with the team. But the reaction to reaching the final this week has proven him right. The fatalism that hung over the club has been blown away; the delirium has been inspiring and overpowering, the feeling of redemption intense.

When Atletico Madrid won the double in 1996, four years after their previous Cup success, hundreds of thousands of fans flooded the streets, gathering at the fountain of Neptune to celebrate. There were parades and horses and then-Atletico president Jesus Gil rode around on an elephant. This time, they'll need an entire zoo. Or the contents of Noah's ark. The Spanish capital could be about to witness the biggest party ever.

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