LISBON, May 22 (Reuters) - If Atletico Madrid win a first Champions League title by beating city rivals Real Madrid on Saturday they will become the most successful team in the club’s history, eclipsing the La Liga and King’s Cup double winners of 1996.
Current coach Diego Simeone played in that side under Serbian Radomir Antic and Atletico’s latest team have many similarities with the 1996 vintage.
Known as “the mattress makers” for their red and white striped shirts, Atletico have already broken the Spanish hegemony of wealthier Real and Barcelona by winning the La Liga title, their first since 1996.
When they run out against Real in the Champions League final in Lisbon, they can secure both their first continental triumph and deny their city neighbours a record-extending 10th.
Praise was heaped on Antic, who also had stints coaching Real and Barca, after the successes of 1996, when he was in his first season with Atletico after impressing at Real Oviedo.
He was able to inspire a squad of talented but under-achieving Atletico players to punch above their weight in much the same way as Simeone has done with the current team.
Although they lost twice to Real in La Liga, they beat Barca in both games and ended the season four points clear of second-placed Valencia.
They won the King’s Cup by overcoming a Barca team featuring Pep Guardiola and Luis Figo 1-0 in the final.
“Antic took up the conductor’s baton with the energetic delicacy of a Von Karajan,” Marca sports daily wrote in their review of the season, adding that the team had “played like angels week in week out”.
Forward Kiko was described as “a Mozart-like child genius”, midfielder Jose Luis Perez Caminero, now the club’s sporting director, was labelled a “Peter Pan” and Simeone “a kind of iron warrior always advancing without fear of crossfire”.
Alongside Simeone and leading scorer Luboslav Penev, it was perhaps playmaker Milinko Pantic who contributed most to Atletico’s success that year and he netted the extra-time winner in the Cup final.
“Pantic, an unknown quantity with a fragile appearance and the look of a sad child, dazzled with his disconcerting magic,” Marca wrote.
Goalkeeper Jose Molina was described as “ice-cool between the posts”, a tag that could easily apply to Atletico’s current keeper Thibaut Courtois, who has won the award for Spain’s top stopper the past two seasons.
It was the fierce commitment of the team and their unity behind Antic that really stood out, however, an achievement Simeone would repeat when he took the reins at the club as coach more than 15 years later.
Antic, now 65, praised Simeone in an interview published on the UEFA website (www.uefa.com) this week.
“I know the coach of course and he has managed to create a great and united team,” Antic said.
”He could go a long way to proving the point that in the world of football that good players aren’t always the most important factor in making a good team but that a good atmosphere always makes a good team.
“It’s clear that Atletico Madrid this season are a team in which every single member of the side sacrifices himself in favour of the group.”
Atletico’s success 18 years ago led many at the club to predict a golden period that quickly proved a pipe dream.
“Looking to the future, I feel sure these successes will continue,” Antic wrote in Marca at the time.
“We have to dream higher because our fans deserve even more,” he added. “We have created a solid base to approach next season with confidence.”
Atletico reached the quarter-finals of the Champions League the following season, losing to Ajax Amsterdam, but were unable to sustain their form and after Antic moved on they were relegated to the second division in 2000.
Atletico’s long-suffering fans will be hoping that their latest run and the riches that come with it will mean that this time around things will be different. (Editing by Justin Palmer)