Player turned coach Simeone revives Atletico fortunes
Madrid: When Atletico Madrid were knocked out in the Champions League quarter-finals by Ajax Amsterdam in 1997, midfielder Diego Simeone could scarcely have imagined it would be 17 years before they reached the last eight again.
Almost two decades later, Simeone is now coaching the La Liga side and Tuesday`s dominant 4-1 home victory against seven-times winners AC Milan, which put Atletico through to the quarter-finals 5-1 on aggregate, was the latest evidence he has moulded his unfancied squad into genuine European contenders.
In much the same way as he did as a combative midfielder for Argentina and clubs including Atletico, Inter Milan and Lazio, Simeone`s players harried and hassled Milan from the start and they looked dangerous nearly every time they broke forward.
Brazil-born forward Diego Costa, who scored twice to follow up his goal in last month`s 1-0 first-leg win at the San Siro, showed why Spain coach Vicente del Bosque was so keen to secure his services and he now has seven goals in five Champions League appearances this season.
As the game wore on, Atletico began to exert an impressive control over the Italian side on a near-perfect night for the club`s long-suffering fans and they are now just four games away from May`s final in Lisbon.
They are also still in with a chance of winning La Liga for the first time since 1996, again with Simeone in the side, and lurk three points behind leaders Real Madrid in second with 11 games left.
Ajax needed extra time to dispatch Atletico 4-3 in 1997 and it is a measure of how far the Spanish side, unbeaten in the latest edition of Europe`s elite club competition, have come under Simeone that if they failed to reach at least the last four it would be a disappointment.
"There will be seven top teams and one humble one which will irritate," Simeone told a news conference when asked about the March 21 draw for next month`s quarters, when Atletico could face Real or Barcelona if their La Liga rivals make the last eight as expected.
"I am happy because I have a group of men who play football in an extraordinary way and who have enormous passion for the game," added the 43-year-old.
"Let`s see who our opponent is, I don`t care if it`s another Spanish team. Remain calm and recuperate well."
Simeone has already tasted success in continental competition with Atletico, leading them to the Europa League title in 2012 when the goals of Radamel Falcao secured the team`s second triumph in Europe`s second-tier club competition in three years.
Costa has stepped up to fill the prolific Colombian`s outsized shoes since he departed for AS Monaco and he now has 29 goals in all competitions this season, including 21 in La Liga.
"He can keep improving," Simeone said of the 25-year-old.
"He has a very impressive physical and mental strength and I am sure he still has a lot of room to grow.
"His participation in the Spain team will help him develop due to the different way they play and the way he adapts so well to all styles.
"He is destined for great things and everything he is achieving is thanks to his humility.
"Nobody has gifted him anything, he came out on his own and everything he has done is a result of hard work and desire."
Atletico`s next game is at home to Espanyol on Saturday, when they can open a four-point lead over third-placed Barca, who host Osasuna on Sunday. Real are at Malaga on Saturday.