Atlético Madrid’s return to the summit of Spanish football has been one of the most fascinating revivals in recent memory. The roots of Los Rojiblancos’ resurrection can be traced back to a pair of electric South American strikers – a duo that jolted the sleeping giant from its slumber.
On this day twenty years ago Luis Aragonés was preparing Atlético for their Segunda División opener against lowly Real Jaén.
It’s easy to forget the chaos of the not so distant past, Atlético are so woven into the fabric of modern European football. In 2000 – with the club racked by financial uncertainty and under criminal investigation – Indios were relegated, ending a run of 65 successive years in the top flight.
The fallen giants pinned their promotion hopes on emerging academy product Fernando Torres. The 17-year-old flourished under Aragonés, helping Atleti back into La Liga in 2002 and playing a key role in the clubs stabilisation. As El Niño’s stock continued to rise, grudgingly, the pragmatic Atlético board began the search for their favourite son’s long-term successor.
Atlético’s scouts cast their gaze over South America – a continent that had historically proven a rich source of talent. From Jorge Griffa and Rubén Ayala in the 60’s and 70’s, to La Liga legends Donato and Diego Simeone in the 80’s and 90’s, through to players like Luis Perea and Diego Godín in the 2000’s – South Americans and Atlético go hand in hand.
Club president Enrique Cerezo had his sights set on 17-year-old Independiente striker Sergio ‘Kun’ Agüero. Having burst onto the scene in 2003 – becoming the youngest debutant in Primera División history at 15 years and 35 days – the diminutive forward scored an outstanding 18 goals in his first full season with Los Diablos Rojos.
Sergio Aguero 4️⃣0️⃣0️⃣
⚽️His first career goal at Independiente
— City Chief (@City_Chief) August 26, 2019
Although he was courted by Europe’s elite, it was Atlético who met his asking price. The reported fee of £15m – a gargantuan sum for a 17-year-old – eclipsed the previous record of £12.5m spent on Christian Vieri in 1997.
Initially, Agüero struggled to meet his own lofty expectations, scoring just 7 goals in his maiden campaign. That lean tally might have set alarm bells ringing, but for his blossoming relationship with Torres.
Promising though their partnership was, an unsettled Torres – who had flirted with Liverpool throughout the season – pushed through his move to Merseyside. Before that transfer could be sanctioned, Cerezo needed to find a replacement. He wouldn’t have to look far.
Former Independiente and Manchester United striker Diego ‘El Cachavacha’ Forlán arrived on the Spanish east coast in 2004 intent on putting his nightmarish stint at Old Trafford behind him. Having scored just 17 goals in 98 games for The Red Devils, the lampooning British media deemed him one of the worst flops of the Ferguson era.
Away from the media spotlight, the golden-locked forward’s confidence returned. Forlán enjoyed a scintillating debut season in Spain, netting 25 league goals for Villareal – a haul that clinched both the Pichichi and European Golden Shoe awards.
From 1980, Diego Forlan is the only player to be top scorer of La Liga 🇪🇸 playing for 2 different clubs other than Barcelona and Real Madrid. pic.twitter.com/gvLoESZoTR
— Uruguay Football ENG (@UruguayFootENG) February 20, 2021
Those who had mocked him now named him a ‘late-bloomer’. As it transpired, ‘slow-bloomer’ would have been more accurate, as there was so much more to come from him.
Two prosperous seasons followed and Forlán was cast back into the European limelight – signing for Los Rojiblancos for £18m. Cerezo regarded him as the perfect partner (and mentor) for Agüero, and had hoped the pair – who were still adapting to life in Europe – would bond through their shared cultural experiences.
Under the tutelage of Mexican manager Javier Aguirre, the duo quickly developed a deep understanding of each other’s games. The juxtaposition of the capricious Argentinian and the wily Uruguayan was captivating. Forlán’s dynamism and intelligence created space for the nimble Agüero who reciprocated – stretching defences with his industry and creating space for his partner who was lethal from long distances.
Blink and you’ll miss this banger from @DiegoForlan7! 🚀🤩
— LaLiga English (@LaLigaEN) August 1, 2021
Forlán has since reflected on his and Agüero’s understanding, saying, “We made a very good duo. We were different, but we understood each other well. He had everything. A quick, strong and confident boy. He knew he was a good player, without being arrogant.”
The duo were awesome in 2007/08. Agüero scored 27 times in all competitions, including a brace in a stunning 4-2 win over Frank Rijkaard’s Barcelona at the Vicente Calderón. Forlán – who scored 23 goals – also played a key role in achieving their fourth place finish – a placement that ensured Champions League football for the first time since 1997.
The following season Aguirre experimented with his system. Agüero was encouraged to drop deeper and wider to receive the ball, with the hope that he – along with Simão, Maxi Rodríguez et al – could supply the ammunition to the deadly Forlán.
The switch paid rich dividends. The Uruguayan was a revelation that season, outscoring the likes of Samuel Eto’o, Messi and David Villa as he notched a remarkable 32 goals in 33 La Liga matches. That tally secured another Pichichi and Golden Shoe double, and was the most goals managed by a Pichichi winner since the Brazilian Ronaldo in 1996/7.
The highlight of Atlético’s 2008/09 season was a dramatic 4-3 triumph over the newly appointed Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona. A brace for both Agüero and Forlán – who tormented the Catalan’s defence all night – cemented their reputations as the most feared partnership in the division.
Barcelona and Atletico Madrid got a bit out of hand in March 2009…pic.twitter.com/s8wRdLntQA
— Planet Football (@planetfutebol) April 2, 2020
Atlético endured a difficult start to the following campaign under new manager Quique Sánchez Flores. Dumped out of the Champions League before Christmas, Atlético’s third place finish in the group stage saw them qualify for the Europa League. After beating Liverpool in the semi-finals – thanks to two goals from Forlán – Flores’ men were the overwhelming favourites against unlikely finalists Fulham.
The Indios took the lead on the half-hour mark, with Agüero laying the ball on a plate for Forlán. Simon Davies equalised for The Cottagers, before Atleti’s South American connection broke Fulham hearts. Agüero crossed for Forlán to prod home an extra-time winner – clinching Los Rojiblancos’ first major European title in 48 years.
Sergio Aguero was directly involved in five goals during Atletico Madrid's 2009/10 Europa League winning campaign.
He would provide two assists in the final against Fulham and help the club win their second major European title.
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) August 21, 2020
Sadly, that victory – the peak of the Agüero- Forlán partnership – was followed by a sharp decline.
In the wake of a gruelling 2010 World Cup in South Africa, 32-year-old Forlán returned to training with his fitness waning. Brazilian striker Diego Costa had been brought in as backup that summer, but both he and Forlán would endure torrid campaigns – scoring a combined total of just 18 goals in 81 appearances.
Agüero, who was cutting an increasingly frustrated figure, picked up the slack – bagging 20 league goals for the first time in his career. After the final match of the season the Argentinian – in whom interest had peaked – announced his intention to leave the club.
He joined Roberto Mancini’s Manchester City revolution for £38m in the summer, a move that paved the way for Radamel Falcao’s transfer from Porto. The Columbian’s arrival effectively ended Forlán’s Spanish adventure, with the Uruguayan shipped off to Inter before the start of the season.
As strike partnerships go – as duo’s go – Agüero and Forlán is right up there. During their four years together, between them they racked up 191 goals in 388 appearances. Both played an instrumental role in propelling Atlético onwards and upwards. In clinching the Europa League the pair started a new winning ethos at the club – a tradition that continues to this day.