BARCELONA, Spain (AP) – With a smaller budget and no stars like Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, Atletico Madrid wasn’t supposed to be leading the Spanish league with five matches left to play.
Atletico coach Diego Simeone’s mantra for success has been to never acknowledge his team as a contender, insulating his squad from the hype and maintaining its focus on the game at hand.
That discourse finally changed on Sunday after Atletico beat Getafe 2-0 to extend its advantage to three points over Real Madrid, with Barcelona another point behind.
”From here on I am changing from `going ahead game by game,”’ Simeone said. ”Now all of us Atleticos are going forward final by final.”
Here are five things to know about Atletico’s title bid with five matches to play:
LONG TIME COMING
The last time Atletico Madrid won the Spanish league, coach Diego Simeone was wearing its red-and-white shirt as a midfielder. That was 18 years ago when the team claimed its ninth league title and also won the Copa del Rey.
Many of Spain’s neutral fans are also supporting Atletico’s bid because it would break Barcelona and Real Madrid’s hold on the league title that they have divvied up for the past nine seasons.
Diego Simeone returned to coach Atletico Madrid midway through the season in December 2011 and inherited a team in shambles.
Since then, the former Argentina international has transformed it. And he did so not by making massive signings, but instead by boosting the morale of his players.
He turned center backs Diego Godin and Miranda into the most trustworthy in the league and made midfielders Arda Turan and Tiago Cardoso into tough, physical competitors.
But even more impressively, Simeone recovered striker Diego Costa and playmaker Raul Garcia after both were loaned out for the 2011-12 season when they couldn’t earn a place on the squad.
Diego Costa has exploded this season with 34 goals in 43 games, while Garcia has added 16 goals in 30 games.
Even Atletico’s midseason moves to bring in Diego Ribas and Jose Sosa have paid off with both midfielders fitting in and contributing immediately.
”I always said we only depend on ourselves,” Simeone said. ”We depend on our ambition, our enthusiasm, our effort, our hard work, and, above all, our humility as a team.”
BIG GAME WINNERS
Under Diego Simeone, Atletico Madrid not only takes care of business by grinding out wins weeks after week, it has also proven capable of rising to the occasion for the big matches.
Simeone led Atletico to the 2012 Europa League title and European Super Cup, and ended a 14-year winless streak against Real Madrid to claim the Copa del Rey in 2013.
Last week, Atletico eliminated Barcelona from the Champions League to advance to the semifinals.
Atletico Madrid’s focus on team play has allowed its less talented squad to outperform Real Madrid’s and Barcelona’s star-studded groups.
Atletico held Barcelona’s potent attack to only two goals in five meetings this season and has the league’s best defense with only 22 goals allowed this campaign.
Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, meanwhile, has proven to be the best in the league.
Atletico Madrid controls its own destiny and needs to win four of its remaining five matches to win the Spanish league title.
The problem it that it has the hardest schedule of the top three teams.
Atletico’s run-in continues Friday against Elche, when the hosts will look to remain undefeated in league play this season at the Vicente Calderon Stadium.
Atletico then faces tough back-to-back games in Valencia, first at Valencia and then at Levante. Malaga at home is next, followed by the season finale at Camp Nou versus Barcelona.
Atletico holds the head-to-head goal advantage over Real Madrid, which means it can still lose a match and edge out Madrid if they end the season level on points.
”We have to take each game as it comes now more than ever,” Atletico defender Diego Godin said. ”We have a good advantage and we must keep it until we reach the end.”