There was an unfamiliar feel about things at the Vicente Calderon on Wednesday night. Truth be told, in the days leading up to the Champions League second leg against Bayer Leverkusen there was a bit of a foreign feeling about proceedings — and it wasn’t just the unseasonably hot weather.
The mood going into the game was about as far removed from their last-16 fixtures over the previous seasons in which AC Milan (2013-14), Leverkusen (2014-15) and PSV (2015-16) all came into the second leg on the banks of the Manzanares River well and truly still in the tie.
This time round, Atletico Madrid had dominated the German side as they swept them aside 4-2 at the BayArena and the second leg was a mere formality: The tie was over and it was only being played because competition rules said it had to be.
Even fans of Los Rojiblancos, who know their club as ‘el pupas‘ (the cursed one), were confident of a stroll through to the last eight and — bar Jan Oblak’s stunning triple save — it was as comfortable an evening as you are likely to see in European knockout football. Bernd Leno’s stops from Koke and Angel Correa in the first half made the aggregate scoreline flatter Leverkusen.
And while the sense of the job already being done might be something new, one thing that is becoming more and more familiar to Atletico is a place amongst Europe’s elite. But it was not always like that.
While Atleti had enjoyed Europa League success a couple of years before Diego Simeone took over in 2011, they are now in a position that was unthinkable at the turn of the decade. Lagging in mid-table having suffered Copa del Rey humiliation, the current coach galvanised the club.
He led them to a second Europa League in three years during his maiden half-season at the helm and while he also swatted aside Chelsea in the European Super Cup in 2012, not even he could have expected to have taken the club as far as he has. It is one thing qualifying for the Champions League — as he did in his first full season in charge — but it is another to get them into a select group of four sides that have reached the last eight in the last four seasons.
The other three read like a who’s who of European football royalty: Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich. Three European superclubs with a spending ability and pull for players that outweighs almost everyone else in the world.
“Delighted,” was how Simeone described his feelings after reaching his fourth quarterfinal in as many seasons. “It’s testament to the club’s efforts and of the players who gave their all on the pitch in different situations. They have all worked hard to get into the best eight in Europe. It’s an important step. The Champions League is special and this step, for the club, is very important.”
Very much the black sheep, Atleti nevertheless are part of the flock. The way they used their nous, experience, played streetwise football over the two legs — Gabi and Filipe Luis picking up tactical bookings at 4-2 — and kept their opponents at arm’s length throughout Wednesday’s return leg is testament as to why they are now considered one of Europe’s top sides.
Their recent record in the competition is rivalled only by Real’s — the only team to knock Simeone out during the last three years — and further demonstrates their progression from also-rans to one of the continent’s elite under the 46-year-old.
Each of the other sides has chopped and changed managers over the last few years. Simeone, however, is the exception. He is the only boss among the current crop to have also reached this stage on such a consistent basis. In the modern football world of overreactive boards and ever-demanding fans, Simeone’s individual achievement — in addition to the collective one from the players under his control — cannot be understated.
“If a coach is at a club for so long, there’s a reason,” said opposite number Tayfun Korkut pre-Leverkusen. “He and his assistants behind the scenes are doing a great job. Nowadays it’s very hard for a coach to be at a club for such a long time, and that says it all about him.”
Korkut was absolutely spot on. Moreover, no side will want to be pitted against Atletico when the draw is made on Friday — and that goes to show just how far they have come.
Joseph Walker covers Atletico Madrid for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter: @Joe_in_espana.