Atletico Madrid embracing life at top


(Associated Press)

It’s a seemingly typical spring in Spain. Real Madrid and FC Barcelona are neck and neck in La Liga. Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are dueling for a scoring title. Four clubs remain in the running for European crowns. Vicente del Bosque is eyeing another major trophy this summer with his almost-invincible national team.

This year’s script, though, is being rewritten by the capital’s second team, Atletico Madrid.
With five matches left in La Liga’s heated race, Atletico lies ahead of both Real Madrid and Barcelona and is threatening to become the first club other than the two global titans to win the championship since Valencia 10 years ago.

Real and Barcelona have combined for 54 of 82 first-tier titles and 44 second-place finishes. They have occupied the top two slots for five consecutive years and eight of the previous nine campaigns.

Atletico last raised La Liga’s trophy in 1996, which ended a 19-year drought. It has enjoyed success outside of league play, winning last year’s Copa del Rey (the cup tournament running concurrent to the regular season) and the previous two titles in the Europa League, the continent’s second-shelf tournament.

The path to the prime Spanish trophy has followed a gradual route: In the four previous seasons, Atletico rose from ninth to seventh to fifth to third.
With a 2-0 victory at third-from-last Getafe on Sunday, Los Rojiblancos, the red and whites, moved three points ahead of Real and four in front of Barcelona. They hold the first tiebreaker — head to head — over Real and drew at home with Barcelona in January. (The May 17 finale: Atletico at Barcelona.)

Atletico also is in contention to win its first UEFA Champions League title in 40 years, advancing to the semifinals last week by defeating Barcelona on a 2-1 aggregate. Chelsea awaits.
The front-runners are under the guidance of an Argentine, Diego Simeone, who took charge midway through the 2011-12 campaign. Simeone, who coached in his homeland and Italy for more than 5 1/2 years, was a tenacious defensive midfielder who appeared in three World Cups.
His ace is Diego Costa, a 25-year-old forward born in Brazil who gained Spanish citizenship and chose Spain when faced with representing his birthplace or adopted home. (He made two appearances for Brazil but petitioned FIFA for a one-time switch.)

Brazilian Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari’s response: “He is turning his back on a dream of millions, to represent our national team.”

Brazil’s loss is Spain’s gain.

With 34 goals across all competitions this season, including a late strike Sunday, he is expected to feature at the World Cup in Brazil. His Spanish debut came last month with a 90-minute effort against Italy.

Costa suffered a deep gash in his left leg when he collided with the post after scoring Sunday.
He was taken off on a stretcher, but the injury was not believed to be serious.

BIG CLUBS, BIG CROWD, BIG HOUSE

Shortly after putting tickets on sale, promoters of the Manchester United-Real Madrid match Aug. 2 at Michigan Stadium reported a sellout. If regular seating capacity of 109,000 is utilized, the attendance figure will break the U.S. soccer record of 101,799 for the 1984 Olympic gold medal game between Brazil and France at the Rose Bowl. The match is part of the International Champions Cup, featuring eight European clubs on a preseason tour.

Continental club championships are nearing conclusion. The UEFA Champions League semifinal draw paired 2013 winner Bayern Munich with Real Madrid and Chelsea against Atletico Madrid. The two-leg matchups are April 22-23 and 29-30. The final is May 24 in Lisbon. In the CONCACAF Champions League, Mexican clubs will decide the title: Cruz Azul vs. Toluca, starting Tuesday in Mexico City.

58 DAYS UNTIL WORLD CUP

Construction is set to resume at Sao Paulo’s World Cup stadium, a month after the third fatality in four months involving a worker. Scheduled for completion in December, the project is not slated to finish until mid-May, just weeks before the World Cup opener between Brazil and Croatia. Three of the 12 venues are incomplete, raising the ire of FIFA and concern about Brazil’s readiness after seven years of lead time.

Steven Goff is The Post’s soccer writer. His beats include D.C. United, MLS and the international game, as well as local college basketball.
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Steven Goff · April 13

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