• It may have only been the UEFA Super Cup, but Atletico Madrid's extra-time win over Real Madrid is early evidence that the reinforced Rojiblancos have every intention of being a player on multiple levels this season.
By Brian Straus
August 15, 2018

Finally, it was Atleti’s turn.

Real Madrid’s incredible winning streak in international finals was halted Wednesday evening by its cross-city rival, Atlético, which won the UEFA Super Cup, 4-2, thanks to extra-time goals from Saúl Ñíguez and Koke.

It was a satisfying start to a promising season for Los Rojiblancos, who’ve been victimized so often in recent years by Real’s relentless ability to come through in the clutch. And the result surely will prompt the €100 million question at the Bernabéu: Have the reigning European and world champs done enough to compensate for an aging core and Cristiano Ronaldo’s blockbuster departure?

The annual one-off match between the Champions League and Europa League title holders, contested this year in Talinn, Estonia, was an intra-city derby for the first time and proved to be an entertaining, wide-open affair. That’s understandable this early in the season—there are players new to both clubs and others coming off World Cup duty—but it’s still worth noting considering the history between these sides and Atleti’s renowned ability to put games on lockdown. Watching from a Lilleküla Stadium suite while serving a UEFA suspension, Atlético manager Diego Simeone saw his usually stalwart squad blow an early lead, then Real fold in extra time. Perhaps they were signs that a season of unexpected twists lies ahead.

Atlético collected its third Super Cup trophy, adding to those claimed in 2010 and 2012 and the three Europa League crowns won over the past decade. It’s a decorated club with talented players that’s been overshadowed almost entirely by Real and Barcelona.

Here are three thoughts on an evening and a year ahead in which that could change:

This was a long time coming for Atlético

Coming so close only to fail is agonizing. Failing at the feet of your biggest rival, over and over again, is another level of despair altogether. But Atlético is nothing if not relentless, and on Wednesday, it finally bested Real on the European stage.

There had been a couple of recent domestic triumphs (the 2013 Copa del Rey final and the 2014 Spanish Supercopa), but European competition between the two had been a one-sided affair. In four straight seasons, Real got the best of Atleti in the Champions League. In ’14 and ’16, it happened in the final—the first in extra time after a 93rd-minute Sergio Ramos equalizer, and the second on penalty kicks. In between, Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernández knocked Los Rojiblancos out of the quarterfinals with an 88th-minute, second-leg goal. Then in 2017, Real held them in the semis en route to a second straight continental crown.

A Super Cup certainly doesn’t compensate for those defeats, but it may stick in Atleti’s collective consciousness if they meet Los Blancos again in the Champions League. Real is still formidable, but any hex is over. Wednesday’s final was a seesaw affair, with each team holding sway for stretches, but Atlético’s dominance and composure in the first half of overtime was impressive, and Simeone's side was a worthy winner.

On the 98th-minute clincher, Real’s usually-flawless center backs were exposed. Ramos sent a short pass to under-pressure French World Cup champion Raphaël Varane, who was quickly dispossessed by a pressing Thomas Partey. Atleti's Diego Costa collected the ball and sent it through to Partey, who cut his pass back for Saúl to volley home.

Costa, who scored both Atleti goals in regulation, was a provider again in extra time, as his 104th-minute feed to Vitolo helped shred the Real defense and set the stage for Koke’s well-placed, one-time finish.

Real’s overtime capitulation was borderline historic. Its record in international finals had been ruthlessly consistent. Since falling to Boca Juniors in the 2000 Intercontinental Cup (then the club world championship), Los Blancos reeled off an astonishing 13 straight wins in games with trophies on offer. That record is highlighted by five Champions League finals—including the past three—and four club world championships.

Real was due to lose. But the context will cause concern.

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A different sort of spotlight now shines on Real

Of course Ramos would be confident. It’s on brand, both for the brash defender and his massive, occasionally overbearing club.

Asked before Wednesday’s game about Real post Ronaldo, Ramos said, “In the past, top players have passed through here and we always keep winning. [Ronaldo] will have to leave us to it and Real Madrid will keep going forward, whatever happens we won't stop winning. He decided to make the change and I hope that it goes well for him and for us.”

The season is hardly lost, but Real’s air of invincibility certainly was dented Wednesday. It’s been a trying summer. Former coach Zinedine Zidane, who so adroitly engineered Madrid’s knockout dominance, surprisingly resigned a few days after May’s Champions League final. The club’s pursuit of his successor was awkward to say the least, as Spain’s World Cup campaign imploded following the hiring (by Real) and firing (by Spain) of Julen Lopetegui.

Ronaldo was next out the door, with €100 million coming the other way from Juventus. That’s a good bit of business for a 33-year-old, but only if the money is spent in a manner that quickly compensates for his contributions. So far, Madrid has been linked to just about every bigger, younger name in Europe, from Neymar and Eden Hazard to French World Cup revelation Kylian Mbappé. And while Spain’s transfer window doesn’t close until the end of August, there have been no Galáctico unveilings so far. In addition, the future of World Cup Golden Ball winner Luka Modric, who played as a substitute Wednesday, remains uncertain. He’s been linked to Inter Milan.

Real’s big additions so far are Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois—he’s not going to score Ronaldo’s goals—and Brazilian 18-year-old Vinícius Júnior. Neither played in Tallinn. There’s often drama at the Bernabéu, and this summer has been no different. It may continue into the fall if additional moves aren’t made.

Gareth Bale played well against Atleti. He’s got strength and range, and should flourish with more responsibility this season. And Karim Benzema still is a very good striker. But Madrid’s attack isn’t what it was. Isco and Marco Asensio are more complementary talents. The club has two weeks to figure it out.

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Los Rojiblancos are a more well-rounded threat

Simeone and Atlético are renowned for their defensive prowess, but they did something to Real on Wednesday that hadn’t been accomplished by anyone in years—scored four goals. Fielding a more dynamic team, capable of putting opponents under as much pressure as it can absorb, gives Atleti a shot to win a lot more than the Europa League.

Costa was brilliant against Real, showing all the hunger and movement that seemed to be lacking in Spain’s soul-sapping loss to Russia at the World Cup. He opened the scoring after just 49 seconds, running onto his own header after a long ball from Diego Godín, and beating Ramos, Varane and goalie Keylor Navas in quick succession. Real stormed back to take a 2-1 lead, but Costa than sent the Super Cup to extra time with a close-range finish in the 79th.

Atleti’s most important move of the summer was to hold on to Antoine Griezmann, whose savvy and attacking versatility was a massive part of France’s World Cup triumph. Griezmann was quiet in Tallinn, but he’s had next to no rest and probably will need some time to round into form.

If Simeone promised reinforcements as Atleti tried to keep Griezmann in the fold, he delivered, adding French teammate Thomas Lemar, a skillful midfielder, along with Portuguese national team midfielder Gelson Martins and veteran Croatian striker Nikola Kalinic. Rodri Hernández, a former Atleti youth player, also returned to the club from Villarreal. The 22-year-old earned his first senior cap for Spain in March.

"Football is marvelous as nobody has one truth. You can win in different ways. We saw that again with France winning at the World Cup, with some characteristics similar to Atletico,” Simeone said this week.

Regarding Real and his own club’s pursuit of its rival, he said, “Obviously our budgets are not the same. But in motivation we never feel lower than anybody. … Important players want to come to Atlético Madrid, and the young players do not want to leave—Koke, Saúl, Lucas [Hernández], Thomas [Partey]—and keep growing with the club. That is collective work from the club and us to keep growing and improving.”

Perhaps it took a significant step on Wednesday, beating Real in a final. Considering Spain’s domination of European and global football—since 2014, its clubs have won every Club World Cup, Champions League, Europa League, and Super Cup save one—playing on Real’s level means contending for honors. And next spring, the Champions League final is six miles from the Bernabéu at Atleti’s Estadio Metropolitano.

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