[dropcap]F[/dropcap]ollowing years of disappointment, underachievement and living in the shadow of a distinguished cross-city rival, Atlético Madrid have been revitalised since the appointment of Diego Simeone in 2011.
The Argentine trainer has propelled the Estadio Vicente Calderón outfit to the forefront of Spanish and European football, with Los Colchoneros now adjudged as a leading side both at home and on the continent.
After the fairytale title success of 2013-14, last term Simeone’s men continued their prolificacy but, like everyone else, could not match the consistency of a superlative treble-winning Barcelona outfit.
It has been an eventful summer for Los Rojiblancos already, with main striker Mario Mandžukić being sold to Juventus and the acquisition of prodigious Argentine forward Luciano Vietto from Villarreal.
The capture of Jackson Martínez from Porto is all-but complete also, continuing a recent trend of Atlético splashing the cash to bring players to the Spanish capital.
Although the spend on new players is necessary to keep pace in a losing battle to match Clásico powerhouses Real Madrid and Barcelona, Atleti would be best advised not to discount their youth academy.
Although Barca’s La Masia remains the Holy Grail of European youth academies and Madrid’s Castilla has produced an incredible number of top-flight players, Atleti’s equivalent should not be overlooked.
Over the years a host of top players have come through the ranks of the Juvenil and B sides at the capital city outfit.
Atlético have been guilty of discounting their youth academy in the recent past and were punished severely as a result.
Under controversial former president Jesús Gil, the club’s youth ranks were closed for a period in a cost-cutting measure.
This decision robbed the Rojiblancos of one of the best players of a generation, who was discarded as a 15-year-old only to star for the club’s most bitter rivals for 16 years.
Raúl was on Atlético’s books when Gil made the choice to disband the youth system in 1992. He was an Atlético fan as a child and the son of an ardent Atleti supporter. He is now a Real Madrid legend.
Just how the course of history might have been altered had Raúl been unearthed at the Calderón rather than the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu remains to be seen and sticks in the throat of those wearing red and white.
Following the reopening of the youth system, Atleti’s favourite son Fernando Torres catapulted himself into the limelight and the Calderón faithful’s hearts after his emergence into the first team in 2001.
Despite distinguished figures such as Radamel Falcao, Sergio Agüero, Diego Forlán and Diego Costa leading the line for Atlético over the years, El Niño remains the Atleti poster-child due to his roots in the club’s youth ranks.
David De Gea was the next household name to make his way from the Juvenil sides to regular La Liga action, with the Manchester United goalkeeper since proving himself as one of the best in the world, despite his young age.
In Simeone’s current squad, a number of youth academy graduates take pride of place.
Spain international Koke is one of the club’s most influential performers and has been a crucial player in the team’s rise to prominence in recent seasons.
Critically, despite transfer rumblings linking him with a big-money move elsewhere, the midfielder’s love for his boyhood club has been the consistent answer when he has been posed with questions over the reported interest of other teams.
Dependable squad player Mario Suárez continues to be a man Simeone can trust, while prodigious and versatile star Saúl Ñíguez has the potential to be a wildcard next term.
The 20-year-old continues to blossom at Spanish age-grade levels and showed just how much talent he has with a fantastic bicycle kick goal in the 4-0 win over Real Madrid last season.
However, despite the presence of Ñíguez and a host of other young starlets coming through the ranks, their progression into regular starting berths in the first team is under threat due to the level of expenditure on new players.
Atleti risk following the example of their cross-town enemies Real, who have blocked the path of many rising stars due to their exuberance in signing ready-made stars from elsewhere.
Torres has returned to the club after starring elsewhere and will remain a favourite for the Calderón regulars, while Raúl will always be looked upon as the one that got away.
As such, Atlético should treat Ñíguez and their other young stars with care, as the potential for another emblematic homegrown player either rising to prominence at the Calderon or leaving to prosper elsewhere is a real possibility.
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