With qualification for the next stage of the Champions League as Group G winners already assured, and a potentially tricky trip to Elche, one of the surprise packages of the season so far, to come at the weekend, Diego Simeone took the opportunity to rest some key players for last night’s match away to Zenit St Petersburg. Zenit badly needed a win to keep their hopes of coming second in the group alive.
Out went Filipe Luis, Arda Turan, Tiago and David Villa from the starting XI that overwhelmed Getafe, with Emiliano Insua, Cristian Rodriguez, Joshua Guilavogui – for his first start since joining in the summer – and Adrian Lopez replacing them. Diego Costa also didn’t travel.
On a freezing night, faced with a bobbly pitch and the relentless drumbeats and chanting of a passionate home crowd, Atleti did not wilt as the Zenit fans perhaps hoped they might have done with little to play for. Possession and territory were largely dominated by the Russians, but with their expensive star names Hulk and Axel Witsel flattering to deceive, they created little of note in an uneventful first half.
Zenit pressed more effectively at the start of the second period, with Thibaut Courtois saving well from Hulk, but most of their attacks came down the right where Insua was impressing at left-back. Guilavogui also proved an able deputy to Tiago Mendes, breaking up the play and keeping possession well.
In the 58th minute, Courtois saved a tame shot and threw the ball out rapidly to Raul Garcia, who held it up before releasing Adrian with an excellent reverse pass. The 25-year-old cut into the area and finished with aplomb. Zenit’s equaliser in the 74th minute owed much to good fortune, as Courtois misjudged a cross that deflected off Toby Alderweireld, looped up in the air and somehow into the far corner when he should have tipped it over. The winning goal Zenit needed never really looked likely though, and Atleti even created the better chances to take all three points.
There was an impressive cameo from the much-vaunted Oliver Torres, while the pace and skill on either wing of Cristian Rodriguez also caught the eye. Diego Simeone said afterwards that he was: “particularly happy we played so well using players who were desperate for minutes on the pitch.” El Chole also reserved particular praise for Adrian and Rodriguez.
Overall, in what was effectively a meaningless game, Atleti turned in a thoroughly professional performance. The strengths of the absentees are well-known, yet the squad players who came in showed there to be genuine depth available to Simeone, which could prove invaluable as Atleti embark on what may well be an extended Champions League run.