On the banks of the Rio Manzanares sits one of the great cathedrals of Spanish football. Over a year has now passed since the Vicente Calderon closed its doors for the final time but the stadium still stands tall and continues to bear the words ‘CLUB ATLETICO DE MADRID’ in big bold letters on top of one its stands. It appears in almost exactly the same state it was the last time it hosted football, minus a bit of rust and the disappearance of the majority of its seats.
It’s late September, the onset of Autumn is well underway in most of Europe but the sun is shining past 7:00 pm in Madrid on what is a distinctly summery evening. The paths along the riverbank are full of cyclists and scantily clad joggers while children play on the nearby swings. Five or six storey apartment blocks surround the Calderon on both sides of the Manzanares, not one of Europe’s most memorable city rivers with low water levels and numerous grassy patches but it still holds a special place in the hearts of followers of Atletico Madrid. The stadium is located quite literally in the heart of the community, a staunchly Atleti part of town where few are tempted by the glitz and glamour of Real Madrid, a distant 7km away in an altogether more upscale and on the surface enticing neighbourhood.
However tonight those Atleti fans won’t be making the short stroll down to the Calderon to watch their team play. Instead they will be traversing the Spanish capital and covering almost twice the distance it takes to even reach the Bernabeu, the home of their bitter rivals. With newly promoted Huesca the visitors to the Estadio Wanda Metropolitano, it’s not really a glamour fixture and to makes matters worse, it’s a 10:00 pm kick-off on a school/work night. Google Maps suggests the journey will take over 50 minutes by public transport meaning Atleti fans will do well to be home by 1:00 am. La Liga boss Javier Tebas has recently claimed that kick-off times are not ridiculous. Many Spanish football supporters, particularly those with young children, may beg to differ.
The journey from the old to new home of Atletico takes a little over an hour allowing for a brief stop to print tickets at a locutorio in Madrid’s lively La Latina district. The final ten minute leg on Line 7 of the Madrid Metro is a sweaty affair, with bodies crammed together and beers being swigged. Some fans get off at Las Musas station, the one immediately before the Wanda, presumably to pop in for a quick drink at one of the very few bars that are within easy walking distance of the stadium.
There are a couple of boys of no more than 8 years old and while Madrilenos are known for their late culture, with evening meals regularly taking place well after 10:00, it’s still fairly noticeable that there are less children heading to this game than normal. Even so, a sea of red and white shirts pours out of Estadio Metropolitano metro station, just a couple of hundred metres from the stadium itself.
The whole complex has an altogether more modern and much more spacious feel than the distinctly urban Vicente Calderon. There is ample space for all the usual refreshment and memorabilia stalls with the nearest apartment blocks only really flickering lights in the distance beyond a large open area that appears to be little more than wasteland. The Wanda Metropolitano’s outer facade is still based around the large abandoned stadium which was the centrepiece of Madrid’s failed bid for the 2016 Olympics but its illuminated red roof gives it a more modern feel and it’s definitely one of those venues that is far more impressive at night.
As we edge towards 10:00, fans are starting to trickle into the stadium. With a full moon in the clearest of night’s skies and temperatures that were now just about ideal for watching football, any anger at the lateness of the kick-off time were perhaps starting to fade. In the distance, planes are queuing up to land at Madrid’s Barajas Airport, the busiest on the Iberian peninsular.
It was a reminder of just how far out of the city centre we now were but once inside the stadium, it doesn’t take long to get why Atleti decided to make the move. The floodlights were being used to create an impressive light-show which creates a spectacular first impression of the stadium’s interior, which appears far bigger than its 67,000 capacity. It also helped to build the atmosphere in a venue that clearly had excellent acoustics with the chants of Atleti’s most passionate fans at the opposite end clearly audible while there was also a bit of a racket coming from the away end, a relative rarity in the world of Spanish football.
Huesca’s supporters had packed out their small section high up in one corner of the Metropolitano. There were also plenty of Huesca shirts and scarves dotted around in other parts of the stadium and as a very rough estimate, there appeared to be perhaps as many as a thousand of their followers in for what was only their sixth match as a top flight club. While some may have been locally-based, it was still an impressive turnout with 400 km separating Madrid and the small Aragonese city, home to a population of only around 50,000.
They’d made a pretty bright start to life in La Liga with four points from their opening two matches but had been dealt a bit of a reality check since with three straight defeats including an 8-2 mauling at Camp Nou. For Atleti, the reverse was largely true with Diego Simeone’s side having won back-to-back matches heading into the game following on from what was their worst start to a La Liga season under the Argentine’s stewardship.
There had even been the rare outpouring of discontent to greet one of Simeone’s substitutions in the draw against Eibar, Atleti’s last outing at the Wanda. However a huge cheer greeted the announcement of the Atleti coach’s name before this one and it was clear that the home fans were very much in good spirits and hungry for a good performance heading into the weekend Madrid derby at the Bernabeu.
The game commenced with Atleti largely on the front-foot, as was to be expected, but Huesca clearly hadn’t been too scarred by their defeat in Barcelona and weren’t shy about committing bodies forward when they had the chance. An early corner for the visitors drew more cheers and chants of ‘Huesca, Huesca!’ from the away section. They were helping to create a real sense of an occasion while at the other end, the core Atleti ‘singing’ fans spent at least five minutes bouncing up and down, all whilst their backs were turned to the action on the pitch. There had clearly been a conscious effort to ensure the atmosphere wasn’t lost on their move away from the Calderon. If anything it had arguably gone up a few notches and there was certainly nothing of the low-key vibe that could easily have greeted a midweek fixture against lowly opponents.
Atleti were playing with a bit more authority than they had in the opening few weeks of the season despite four changes from the weekend win at Getafe. A couple of early efforts from Thomas Lemar signalled their intent and with just 16 minutes on the clock, they got in behind the Huesca back four for the first time. A clever flick from Angel Correa dissected the defence and released Diego Costa for a run at goal. The former Chelsea man unselfishly opted to cut the ball back though to leave the advancing Antoine Griezmann with a simple tap-in to break the deadlock for the hosts.
For a few moments, Atleti appeared in complete and utter control, toying with their opponents in search of a second goal but to Huesca’s credit, they kept their shape and responded with a period of fairly sustained pressure of their own. It was very easy to see why Atleti don’t concede many goals though. Even at home against La Liga’s relegation favourites, their midfield four drops very deep when they don’t have the ball providing an excellent shield to the defence and it’s very hard for the opposition to find any sort of space in the part of the pitch they’d like to be playing. Huesca’s attacking spell ultimately ended with centre-back Rúben Semedo totally misjudging an overhead kick in the Atleti box, allowing Los Rojiblancos the chance to break.
The two coaches continued to hover on the edge of their technical areas and with the exception of the goal, Huesca boss Leo Franco wouldn’t have been totally devastated by what he’d seen as we approached the half hour mark. Even without the bushy haircut he’d often sported during his playing days, the tall former goalkeeper’s frame was unmistakable on the touchline on his return to his old club. His five year stint as Atleti’s number one briefly coincided with the end of Diego Simeone’s period as a player at the Calderon, but just six games into his coaching career, he clearly was going to have to learn the art quickly if Huesca were going to stand a chance of beating the drop.
Just when Huesca appeared to be settling into the game though, they were hit by a bolt from the blue, in the form a thirty yard piledriver from Atleti midfielder Thomas Partey. The Ghanaian’s low right-footed drive flew into the bottom corner past Axel Werner, another Argentine goalkeeper, in the rare position of playing against his parent club.
It was suddenly shaping up to be a night he might want to forget though and just four minutes later, he was picking the ball out of his net again. Koke’s drifted ball over the top was perfect for Correa to run onto and the winger appeared to get the faintest of touches to deceive Werner. The flag went straight up but it was clearly one for VAR and after around a minute of waiting, the referee pointed to the centre-circle to indicate a goal had been given, much to the frustration of the visiting team who were now 3-0 down and effectively already out of the contest.
Leo Franco, trudged back to a sitting position on the bench, with an air of resignation. It doesn’t matter whether you’re Huesca or one of the giants of European football, you simply don’t come back from 3-0 down against Atletico Madrid. They at least managed to make it to Half-Time without conceding again with a reckless challenge from Semedo, the only really notable moment from the final moments of the first period. The frustrations of the Villarreal loanee, playing despite a spell in prison and an attempted murder charge earlier in the year, perhaps summed up the mood in the Huesca team as they headed back to their dressing room for what must have been quite a difficult Half-Time team-talk for Leo Franco to give.
It had been simple but effective football from Atleti. 3-0 perhaps flattered them slightly with a golazo from Thomas and a bit of a freak goal, which would ultimately be credited to Koke, adding gloss to the scoreline. The Huesca fans meanwhile had become increasingly subdued and must have been fearing a repeat of the 8 goal massacre they’d suffered only a few weeks earlier in Barcelona.
However it didn’t take a genius to figure out what path the remainder of the game might take. With a Madrid derby in just 4 days, immediately followed by another midweek game in the Champions League, Simeone was inevitably going to take the opportunity to rest some legs. By the 65th minute he’d made all his changes with both Griezmann and Costa withdrawn, the latter still without a league goal in seven months. Summer signings Gelson Martins and Nikola Kalinic formed the new-look strike pairing and the Portuguese international enjoyed a few lively bursts where he threatened to open his account for his new club.
Overall though, the Second Half quickly developed into a bit of a non-event. That didn’t stop the Atleti boss prowling the touchline like the outcome of the game was still very much on the line. He was kicking every ball and the section of the stadium behind the goal Atleti were now defending continued to create a lot of noise including loud chants in support of ‘El Cholo’ as their coach is affectionately known. However understandably with the clock ticking towards midnight, fans in other parts of the ground began to think about making an early exit.
On the pitch, Huesca’s Madrid-born substitute Juan Aguilera spurned a decent opportunity to score on his very first appearance in the Spanish top flight at the age of 33. However that was about as good as it got for the Aragonese minnows, who would head into the weekend on the back of four straight defeats. The game finally petered out with no more goals as Atleti claimed a 3-0 win to move into 3rd place and give La Liga’s top three a very familiar look once again.
Their ‘mini-crisis’ was clearly over and Atletico Madrid looked every bit the disciplined outfit with a sprinkling of star quality, that has excelled at home and abroad throughout this remarkable era under Simeone. Their new stadium is truly a wonderful arena that already genuinely feels like home and is clearly capable of producing a fabulous atmosphere. However as the packed trains continued to hurtle out of Estadio Metropolitano Metro Station in the early hours of what was now Wednesday morning, it was still difficult to escape the thought that this will never be a great location and while the stadium is clearly here to stay, La Liga might be wise to think twice before they schedule any more 10:00 pm midweek kick-offs at the Wanda.