Any manager who shares a league with Jose Mourinho will almost be fighting a losing battle if he attempts to take the spotlight away from the Portuguese tactician. The ex-Real Madrid coach was centre stage up until the last match day of his tenure in La Liga against Osasuna, where his last game in charge of Los Blancos saw a sea of journalists cornering him on the sidelines as they tried to take last-minute shots before his departure to Chelsea.
Yet in the Copa del Rey final on 17th May against Atletico Madrid, it was the 50-year-old's counterpart, Diego Simeone, who was being snapped by hundreds of cameras and held aloft after 90 minutes of football as the Argentine guided his team to their tenth Copa del Rey accolade; denying Mourinho a final success with Real Madrid and celebrating Atletico Madrid's first victory over the Bernabeu outfit since the dawn of the new millennium.
From the first kick of the 2012/13 season, the Mattress Makers looked poised to establish themselves as one of the key teams in La Liga and were showing signs of running away with second place, had it not been for their city rivals' remarkable surge in the second half of the campaign.
Atletico Madrid finished third, but it hardly mattered: They qualified directly for the Champions League and made sure that their campaign ended with a trophy, as opposed to Mourinho, who left his club on a sour note.
Still a young man, Simeone is not yet the finished article. But the former Biancoceleste player's 2012/13 season at the helm of Atletico Madrid was the climax of a journey during which he transformed a squad of perennial under-achievers into a team that won the Europa League, UEFA Super Cup and Copa del Rey under his tutelage, over a span of 18 months.
The green shoots of success really started to become established last summer when the 43-year-old's side prevailed 4-1 over Champions League winners Chelsea in the UEFA Super Cup. Scoring a hat-trick, Radamel Falcao played an important part in the Atletico Madrid line-up and was the main reason behind their convincing performance.
Yet the team could not be trimmed to just one man – and despite Thibaut Courtois in goal and the likes of Arda Turan operating in midfield, individual players alone could not explain Atletico Madrid’s success last season. Only a team and a wily tactician could.
The Mattress Makers' overall 2012/13 record was noteworthy and the fact that they finished with the best defence in the country, with only 31 strikes conceded spoke volumes; no team, except for Juventus and Bayern Munich who conceded 24 and 18 goals respectively, managed such a feat in Europe’s four highest ranked leagues.
“You can have great champions but, without a group, there is no team. It’s very difficult. We are a group first. That makes us a team”, declared Simeone after his men’s memorable win over Los Merengues. His side reaped the rewards for their perseverance while the Real Madrid dressing room was plunged into disarray.
But doubts have already been cast over Atletico Madrid’s ability to continue to compete with the Iberian country’s largest two sides in 2013/14, especially with Falcao opting to swap the Mattress Makers for newly-promoted Ligue 1 side Monaco, who are being cash-fuelled by rich owner Dmitry Rybolovlev.
The estimated €60m brought in by Falcao's sale will no doubt be greatly beneficial to Atletico Madrid. Simeone has filled the gap with a coup of sorts in capturing David Villa from Barcelona, but the 31-year-old is not quite the all-action presence of the Colombian; the former FC Porto man is amongst the world’s best current centre-forwards. His 28 league goals during the last campaign represented 43% of his side’s total tally. Atletico Madrid might have laid their hands on a large bundle of cash in return for Falcao's services, but Los Rojiblancos have a tough mountain to climb.
A new era has begun for Simeone after Falcao. And perhaps it will be the Argentine’s greatest task to build a side without the Colombian – a task that looks all the more difficult as Neymar joins Barcelona and Real Madrid splash the cash under new boss Carlo Ancelotti. However, Simeone has consistently surprised since landing at the Vicente Calderon and given the coach’s managerial record in Spain, it would be foolish to write him off. His story is far from over and by the end of 2013/14, the very biggest clubs may be beating a path to his door.