For a club like Atletico Madrid, success never comes easily, but
Wednesday's Europa League final victory over Marseille served to
underline just how far they have travelled in the years since
Diego Simeone became coach.
The fiery Argentine said the 3-0 win over the French side in
Lyon, achieved thanks to Antoine Griezmann's brace and a late
Gabi goal, meant "much more than just winning a trophy".
Simeone took over a club that had been in a near constant state
of disarray for more than a decade and almost immediately revived
But after one Europa League, one Copa del Rey and a La Liga title
in his first two and a half years at the helm, the last few
seasons had been defined more by the near misses.
Two Champions League final defeats in agonising fashion against
city rivals Real Madrid in 2014 and 2016 had many thinking
Simeone might be tempted to accept an offer from one of Europe's
Yet the 48-year-old has toughed it out through a FIFA-imposed
transfer ban, a disappointing Champions League group-stage exit
earlier this season and a January window when the club sold a
clutch of valuable squad members.
He has led Atletico into their new stadium and to the club's
third Europa League triumph in nine years, while also keeping
them on course to finish above Real in La Liga.
"It has been a difficult season, but winning the Europa League is
much more than just winning a trophy, it validates all our hard
work, our determination," Simeone said after Wednesday's game.
"Last season we reached the semi-finals of the Champions League,
and this season we started that competition badly, but we showed
our manliness against Arsenal and that set us on the way to
winning the cup."
Griezmann's goal in London in that semi-final against Arsenal set
Atletico on the way to beating the Premier League club, and it
was testament to how far they have come under Simeone that they
were the favourites to win that tie.
They clearly justified their favourites tag against Marseille
too, with a typical Atletico performance -- happy to soak up the
pressure and wait for an opposition error, from which Griezmann
put them ahead.
Falling behind against Atletico is usually fatal, and so it
proved for the French side.
Simeone's team are so well-drilled that the coach's absence from
the touchline was no problem -- a suspension meant he had to
watch from the stands.
- Sense of belonging -
This may be less prestigious than the Champions League, but
Simeone has now won six titles with the club, including a UEFA
Super Cup and a Spanish Super Cup.
That puts him level with the tally of the legendary Luis
Aragones, like Simeone a former player who went on to coach the
Simeone won a league and cup double as a player with Atletico
before eventually returning to his homeland to cut his teeth in
coaching, but it is in the Spanish capital that he clearly feels
"Atletico Madrid for me is an important place in my life, not
just in sporting terms," he said.
"I grew as a player at this club. I came back at an important
moment in my life, and without doubt returning gave me a sense of
balance and peace.
"This is not just about winning the Europa League, no, it's much
greater than that. It's about hard work, effort, making ourselves
competitive, winning again and again."
That relentlessness means Simeone will not take his eye off the
ball before this weekend's final La Liga game against Eibar, when
a draw will secure second spot and allow Atletico "to continue
being a nuisance" to their more powerful rivals.
Then it will be on to next season, sorting out Griezmann's
future, and targeting the Champions League final, which will be
played in their own Wanda Metropolitano stadium.