By Ben Hayward
For most clubs, losing a star striker is a huge drama. For Atletico Madrid, it is merely a momentary inconvenience.
Countless times over the last three decades, Atletico have seen their finest forward move on to pastures new. But on each occasion almost without fail, they have picked themselves up, dusted themselves down and gone on to sign a player of similar quality, sometimes superior. Indeed, while other clubs strive and struggle to find a suitable frontman, the Colchoneros can seemingly always identify a special striker.
Although outside the top two in Spain for most of that time (their only recent title triumph was in 1996), Atletico’s forward line has been blessed with the best, from Hugo Sanchez to Christian Vieri, Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink to Fernando Torres, Sergio Aguero and Diego Forlan to Radamel Falcao. Few sides in world football can boast such an array of attacking talent in their history.
Hugo may be better known for his time at Real Madrid, where he went on to become one of the world’s finest forwards, but it was at Atletico where the Mexican made his name in Europe in four special seasons before crossing the capital divide.
Atletico’s alert scouts spotted Sanchez starring for Mexico City club Pumas and the Spanish side enjoyed the prolific Pentapichichi for four seasons between 1981 and 1985.
The Mexican’s move to Real was somewhat offset by the arrival of Spain striker Julio Salinas in 1986 and subsequently by the brilliance of Portuguese Paulo Futre on the wing at the Vicente Calderon in the late 1980s. And then Kiko arrived from Cadiz.
The Olympic gold medalist joined Atleti in 1993 and formed a prolific partnership with Lubo Penev as the club sealed an impressive league and cup double in 1995-96 under Radomir Antic.
The Bulgarian’s 32 goals in his sole season at Atleti were crucial to that success, while Kiko became a club legend, although he went on to struggle with injury in the latter years of his time at the Calderon.
The Spain star was later joined by Christian Vieri and then Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink, each of whom only spent one year at the club. The Italian arrived off the back of one strong season at Juventus but cemented his reputation at Atletico as he netted an incredibly impressive 29 goals in just 32 games. The Dutchman, meanwhile, managed 35 in 47 – although that was not enough to save his side from relegation to Segunda for the first time in their history, in 2000.
By that time, though, Atleti had a young striker of their own who was beginning to make waves: Fernando Torres. Between 2000 and 2007, El Nino hit 91 goals for the capital club as they returned to the top flight and regained their place among the elite in Spain. Torres was then joined in his final season in Madrid by the precocious Sergio Aguero, a young Argentine tipped for big things in his early days at Independiente. As with Sanchez, Atleti stole a march on their rivals to snap up El Kun as an 18-year-old – and they were vindicated as he went on to score over 100 goals for the club in five full campaigns in Spain.
Torres moved to Liverpool in 2007 after a sole season alongside Aguero and he was replaced by another of the world’s top strikers: Diego Forlan. The Uruguayan had been brilliant at Villarreal and was proven in La Liga, yet Europe’s biggest clubs had appeared reluctant to sign the South American after the indifferent spell at Manchester United earlier on in his career. Atletico, as so often before, knew better. More mature and now a great goalscorer, Forlan went on to form a memorable tandem with Aguero as the pair fired the Spanish side to Europa League and Uefa Super Cup success in 2010, as well as reaching the final of the Copa del Rey.
The duo’s departure a year later looked disastrous, yet Atleti did not panic as they went out and bought their latest star striker: Falcao. The Colombian had been tipped for great things but neither Chelsea nor Real Madrid seemed entirely convinced. Atletico were and the South American has gone on to become one of the world’s finest since moving to the Calderon, scoring 68 times in just 85 games so far for the capital club.
Falcao now looks likely to move on following his second season with los Rojiblancos, but given his side’s success at recruiting forwards over the last three decades, don’t bet against them finding another world-class striker to step in this summer.