The reasons why Atletico Madrid can win LaLiga this season

With a friendly, but unrepentant, 'Hola!' to Real Madrid and Barcelona fans, the premise of this column is straightforward and clear-cut: Atletico Madrid can, and probably should, win LaLiga this season.

It's a conclusion not solely predicated on either Madrid losing goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and defender Éder Militão to long and debilitating injuries -- nor on Barcelona's hapless showing in their 0-0 draw at Getafe at the weekend. And it certainly isn't about the simple fact that the 2021 champions defeated Granada 3-1 in their opening fixture, either. Instead, it's a conclusion anyone paying proper attention over the past seven or eight months should have arrived at.

It's one based on: Atleti's squad quality, a 24-carat strike partnership they're cultivating, the fact that they had LaLiga's best individual player last season and, above all, the fact that their belligerent, talismanic coach, Diego Simeone, came clean over the summer in admitting how atrocious they were for the latter half of 2022.

The quality we'll come back to -- the strike partnership I'm referring to involves Memphis Depay and Antoine Griezmann, while LaLiga's best, most entertaining and most scintillating footballer in 2022-23 was the self-same Griezmann.

And the admission? Well, that was pretty startling.

Simeone is very savvy -- a street-smart warrior. Choose your own adjective, euphemism or term of guarded admiration. The Argentine is aggressive, clever and born to compete, and he's by far the dominant personality in Atleti's 120-year history (against huge competition) given what he's achieved both as a Roy Keane-style midfield marauder in his playing days, and then his G.O.A.T. trophy haul as Los Rojiblancos' coach. (I'm referring to his league/cup double as a player in 1996, then eight trophies and two Champions League finals as manager.)

But he's obdurate, stubborn and not very prone to either admitting he's wrong or that there's anything he might have done better. So for those of us who were sick of his jittery, safety-first, deadly-dull, "change the formation every 20 minutes" tactics, which were confusing and undermining his own players, it was like being handed an ice-cold beer in the middle of the Sahara desert to hear him confess recently as to how badly he and his players under-performed from August to mid-January last season.

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The context: Atletico were knocked out of Europe (finishing bottom of their Champions League group) by the first of November; and after only 14 LaLiga matches, having suffered as many defeats as in entirety of either of their last two title-winning seasons, Los Rojiblancos were already 13 points behind leaders Barcelona.

In the immediate post-World Cup "restart," the team I'm tipping to win the title this season dropped to within one bad result of ninth position! It was atrocious, but back then, nobody in Atleti's leadership, least of all Simeone, would admit that several things were very wrong. Which is why his recent, even if overdue, admission of how close to the edge he came was vital.

From confession, soul-bearing and the act of saying "mea culpa" comes healing and advancement.

During preseason in Asia, the 43-year-old Simeone told Diario AS the truth. "Without any question, that period was the lowest point in the 11 years I've been in charge. We simply weren't able to get across the ideas and the concepts we'd previously always been able to communicate to the squad. It did feel like the end of an era.

"I'm an optimist by nature, but I'm not stupid. I could see what all the rest of you were seeing. We were playing badly, commitment and effort were lacking, and we weren't gelling as a team. There was no sense of unity when we played and we transmitted insecurity.

"The [World Cup] break came at just the right time for us. We were able to take a breather, work out what was going wrong and then change what we were doing. All of that took humility, determination and hard graft. There are very few clubs who could have dragged themselves out of the s--- we were in after such a bad first half of the season, and with a group [of players] in the team that had lost their motivation and their identity, and who just weren't gelling with what we were trying to do.

"It's a bigger achievement to accept what you're doing badly and turn your performance round like we did in the second part of the season than it does to win a trophy."

To assess that mess fairly, it's imperative to accept that: Simeone was bedeviled by a series of important injuries; the strange contractual situation in which Griezmann found himself until Atleti actually completed a permanent move from Barcelona, rather than on loan with heavy financial penalties if he played regularly, and to throw in the fact that while frantically casting around for solutions the coach, himself, made things worse.

But re-boot they did. From mid-January, after losing to Barcelona and drawing with Almeria, Atleti not only racked up goals and points -- 46 goals and only two defeats in their next 21 matches -- but were absolutely glorious fun to watch. Swashbuckling, daring, quick and confident, Simeone's side was relentless in pursuit of the opposition net, rather than obsessing with blanket defence. There's no trophy for it, of course, but Atleti "won" the second half of the season, earning five points more than Barcelona and being fully 10 points ahead of Madrid.

Believe me: they rocked.

Although just about everything -- with the exception of untimely injuries to Reinildo Mandava, Memphis Depay and keeper Jan Oblak, which was probably enough to deny Atleti a shot at clawing back the gap on the title winners -- went right between mid-January and June. Three key factors emerged.

The partnership between Depay and Griezman was simply magnetic, and this one is a case of opposites attracting.

Depay has showmanship deeply ingrained in his personality, while Griezmann is the ultimate team player.

The Dutchman thinks that his team should be awarded extra league points for the number of times he can wow the crowd; meanwhile, Griezmann needs to be loved and to feel wanted in order to play his best, but he's willing to work like two men combined to earn those feelings.

In fact, he's obsessed by that.

Simeone calls Griezmann "a brilliant person and a brilliant player. There's a bond between us." Last season, Griezmann told me he knew that he'd hurt the Atleti fans by leaving for Barcelona, and by how he'd done that. He was fiercely determined to erase that debt.

His passes, his work off the ball, his chance-creation, his goals -- everything he did seemed to dove-tail instantly with Depay, but also seemed to inspire everyone else in the squad.

For various reasons the two men only started 38 LaLiga matches between them last season out of a possible 76. If they can hit the same level across, let's say, 55+ match starts this term, then Atleti will be fearful rivals for anyone.

Oblak seems to be fit again, too: on his day, he's one of the top five keepers in the world. Defenders Stefan Savic and Jose Gimenez have been retained (and form a brilliant partnership when fit), but César Azpilicueta -- who oozes personality, experience and will to win -- plus the bullish Caglar Söyüncü and irrepressible Javi Galán have all been added.

Up front, Álvaro Morata has renewed his commitment -- "he's fundamental to us," Simeone argues -- and, at the time of writing, nobody's yet snagged Ángel Correa out of the squad. Yet on that front, Simeone admits "the market is the biggest threat to all the preparation we're doing right now." In the meantime, Samuel Lino and Rodrigo "Ro-Ro" Riquelme add creativity and goal threat after good on-loan seasons with Valencia and Girona respectively, too.

Atleti's best XI is aggressive, pacy, fluid, physical and loaded with chance creation. And it now oscillates, smoothly, between 3-5-2 and 4-4-2 formations without looking like someone had removed them of all their self-belief -- which was how last season began.

Atleti's passionate fans at the Metropolitano are also back in love with the whole project again -- it's no small matter to have them roaring you on.

Now another admission from Simeone. "We've developed a different identity from the one we had years ago: it's more to do with what we do when we're on the ball. The fans made it clear that they wanted more of that."

A lateral glance, once the case for Atleti has been made, suggests that Madrid losing nearly their entire spine in Courtois, Militao and Benzema will hurt them badly. And no matter how well Barcelona combine signings and youth team promotions amid their financial carnage, they remain a team in construction -- something their stadium is suffering too. The champions absolutely will not enjoy their couple of seasons up on Montjuic hill in a stadium that's smaller in capacity, open to the elements and has a running track around the pitch.

If Atleti truly believe, if the João Félix situation can be resolved with another loan away from Madrid while Simeone and the club work out whether the Argentinian's last year of contract is a bridge towards more of the same or the real end of an era, then this can be a winning year for them in LaLiga. They're not odds-on favourites, and it won't be easy for them, but they have a serious chance to capitalise on their own good moment and the weaknesses of their rivals.

Watch this space.