By JOSEPH WILSON
2014-08-19 09:01 PM
BARCELONA, Spain (AP) -- It's rare for a champion not to even qualify as a candidate to defend its title. But Atletico Madrid must be considered a long shot to hold onto its Spanish league crown after losing several players while Real Madrid and Barcelona both bolstered their already spectacular squads.
In Atletico's favor is coach Diego Simeone, the man who proved to be a master at the art of forging a team that is more than a collection of its parts.
Here are five things you should know about Atletico before it opens its Spanish league title defense at Rayo Vallecano on Monday.
Atletico Madrid has had to acquire a new set of forwards after losing its entire attack this offseason.
Atletico may have beaten Chelsea in the Champions League semifinals last spring, but Jose Mourinho's club took a particularly sweet sort of revenge by plucking away leading scorer Diego Costa along with talented left back Filipe Luis and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois. Striker David Villa also left to play in the United States while forward Adrian Lopez was sold to Porto.
In their place Atletico signed Mario Mandzukic from Bayern Munich, France's forward Antoine Griezmann and Mexico's Raul Jimenez.
Griezmann should prove to be an upgrade on an aging Villa thanks to his speed, but the main goal-scoring duties will fall on Mandzukic.
Atletico has succeeded in signing good strikers each time it loses one to a bigger club. Sergio Aguero, Radamel Falcao, and Diego Costa have all triumphed and then promptly packed their bags.
Now Mandzukic will have to fill the void left by Diego Costa and his team-leading 27 goals in the league last season.
"We know that Mandzukic and Griezmann don't have the same characteristics as Costa," said coach Diego Simeone. "We will have to discover how to exploit the characteristics of each one."
Coach Diego Simeone has led Atletico Madrid from one title to the next.
In 2012 it was the Europa League and European Super Cup. Then came the Copa del Rey in 2013. Last season Atletico ended its 18-year wait for the Spanish league title before it came close to adding the European Cup.
Simeone's ingrained the mantra "going forward game to game" in his players, while rejecting comparisons with Real Madrid and Barcelona because of their bigger budgets and squads packed with high-profile players.
Now as champion, it will be seen if Simeone sticks with the same message, and if so, if it still has the same motivating effect on his players.
"For us 'going forward game to game' still works" said Atletico defender Diego Godin. "It's part of our training. Nothing is going to change."
GLASS HALF FULL
Yes, Atletico Madrid saw both its attack and goal gutted after winning the Liga title and reaching the final of the Champions League.
But the beauty of Atletico's title last season was that the credit had to be shared equally throughout the pitch.
So even though it lost its leading scorer in Diego Costa and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, it did well to keep together a set of midfielders and defenders that embodied the spirit of sacrifice preached by coach Diego Simeone.
Besides Jorge "Koke" Resurreccion, Atletico will still count on Arda Turan and Raul Garcia, giving them three midfielders all capable of creating chances for others and scoring on their own.
It also held onto center back pair Diego Godin and Miranda. Godin had a stellar 2013-14 campaign both defending and scoring goals from set pieces, including the goal that clinched the title at Barcelona on the final day of the season.
"Our style of play is the same as last year," said captain Gabi Fernandez. "We have a clear plan based on a solid defense and knowing how to attack on the break."
With his superb vision and passing ability, midfielder Jorge "Koke" Resurreccion is poised to become the undisputed leader of Atletico Madrid.
The 22-year-old Koke has been widely been tapped to replace Xavi Hernandez as the main playmaker for the Spanish national team.
Atletico spent a total of approximately ??95 million ($127 million) this offseason to fill positions left open by departures.
Goalkeeper Jan Oblak arrived from Portuguese league champions Benfica.
Atletico reportedly paid ??16 million ($21.3 million) for Oblak, a large amount for a goalie, so the expectation will be for the Slovenian to maintain the high standard set by Thibaut Courtois. If not, it also bought former Getafe 'keeper Miguel Moya as a reliable backup.
Brazilian defender Siqueira should be a good replacement for Filipe Luis with his similar ability to provide an attacking threat from the left flank.