MADRID – That final hurdle keeping Atletico Madrid from reaching the very top in European soccer is proving to be the most challenging one.
Atletico has been contending among the continent's powerhouses the last few years, but it still hasn't been able to take that final leap and break through with the Champions League title.
"It seems like we are only a step away, but it's a very long step," Atletico coach Diego Simeone said after the team's elimination against Real Madrid in the semifinals on Wednesday. "It's clear that we need to keep improving."
Atletico won 2-1 at the Vicente Calderon Stadium but lost 4-2 on aggregate. The result ended Atletico's hopes of making it to the final for the third time in four seasons.
Atletico has had success against top clubs, including with triumphs over Barcelona and Bayern Munich in recent Champions Leagues, but it has come up short when having a chance to win the elusive trophy that could establish the club as one of the best in Europe.
"It's obvious that it's not easy to keep contending at this level," Simeone said. "If you try to analyze the situation that we have in front of us, and the things that we need to do to keep improving, I think we certainly can achieve these things. We learn and we grow. And if we can improve from what we have achieved so far, the future is encouraging."
Simeone said there is no easy formula to take Atletico to the next level.
"The first thing would be to clone some of our players," he said. "It's clear that the hearts of some of these players we have are so big that they transmit passion to their teammates and push them in the moments of difficulty and in the complex situations of a match."
Having the budgets of clubs such as Madrid, Bayern Munich and Barcelona would also help, although Simeone has proven that money is not everything. He helped turn Atletico into a contender after he arrived in 2012 by instilling a team-first attitude and establishing a fierce defensive scheme based on high intensity.
"It's the club's success," Simeone said. "The club has been growing tremendously in the last 5½ years. But there are steps to take in this process, and you have to take them."
Atletico first started making headlines outside of Spain when it won both the Europa League and the European Super Cup in 2010 and 2012. It broke through in Spain in 2014 when it won its first league title in almost two decades. That year it also reached the Champions League final by eliminating AC Milan, Barcelona and Chelsea.
Atletico is close to securing third place in the Spanish league this season, which would guarantee its return to the Champions League.
"We have to understand that the moment we are going through is just a base for the future, it's not the limit," Atletico striker Fernando Torres said. "We have been doing well in the Champions League and have been competing face-to-face with the best teams for several years, and now we have to focus on growing."
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