By Cillian Shields l @pile_of_eggs
Atletico Madrid gained a lot more than three points this weekend – they gained some vital space to breathe and a tiny margin for error they previously didn’t have. After a tortuous few weeks for the red-and-whites, where they dropped points in three of their last four La Liga matches and struggled to find goals, they finally got back to winning ways in style with a 5-0 win over Eibar.
With many of their top players and main goal threats missing such as Suárez, Félix, and Lemar, los colchoneros will breathe a huge sigh of relief having lived in a very stressed state lately. The wins have been a slog when they’ve come about – only two in their last 11 in all competitions prior to this weekend – and the draws and defeats have each felt like further steps toward a fatal, cruel sentence. This week, Atleti changed the tune.
Marcos Llorente was fantastic, once again, in another makeshift position for him. The versatile nominal midfielder is an all-round action man for Diego Simeone’s team, putting in great shifts in defence, midfield, or up front whenever asked this season. He bagged a brace, just as Ángel Correa did, the forward who generally shines providing others with chances rather than scoring them himself. “That’s the beauty of football,” the Argentine forward said after the game, speaking of having missed big chances in prior weeks – “every weekend we have a rematch.” Correa also spoke about feeling down after missing big chances to win matches in other matches recently, but “today I am happy, because they went in.”
Atleti should not generally feel pressure to win the La Liga title, given their budget is much smaller than the other two giants of Spanish football, but in the second half of this season they’ve been living with a lot of it given their double-digit lead at the summit not long ago. Even though they shouldn’t be expected to win the title, they’ve created a situation for themselves where they should indeed win the title, and the tension caused by turning opportunity into obligation has taken a visible toll on the colchoneros from the capital.
Eibar held strong for much of the game, but after the first goal was bundled in at the far post from a corner, their spirits broke. The Basques were suddenly a lot slower to charge out of the defensive line and pressure Atleti attackers; the forward press was no longer as choking.
Eibar coach José Luís Mendilibar admitted as much after the game: “After 2-0 they continued competing because our level dropped, it was something mental. When they scored, our heads dropped, more than on other occasions. The start of the second half was very bad and there is nothing to say about the result.” The Basques have now gone 14 league games without victory, and the writing appears to be on the wall for them.
The emphatic victory for Atletico Madrid extended their lead at the top of the table, as closest challengers Real Madrid drew a blank away to struggling Getafe. It’s no secret that this season, with its compressed calendar, added mental strain of playing during a pandemic in social bubbles and constantly living extra carefully, sterile atmosphere without fans, is a slog for the players. Every club has gone through periods this season where the squad has been severely reduced – in numbers from injuries and absences, but also in their capacity, as those who are playing are doing so carrying more injuries that aren’t quite serious enough to rule them out entirely.
Following Madrid’s progression in the Champions League over Liverpool, Fede Valverde’s partner posted a photograph of the severe bruising on the player’s foot that he had before the match even started. The Uruguayan gave a phenomenal performance in a new position at right-back. Unfortunately for Zidane, he’s now been added to the absent list, as he was deemed a close contact of a Covid-19 positive case and must isolate for some time. At least it will give him an opportunity to catch a breather.
He was joined on this list of players missing for the Getafe game by Real Madrid’s first, second, and third choice centre backs, first choice right back, second choice right back (probably – Lucas Vázquez I refer to), and first choice left back, which resulted in youngster Víctor Chust lining out in the heart of the back line, and playing a “great game” according to his coach.
Further up the pitch, Casemiro was suspended, club record signing Eden Hazard is still missing, while Toni Kroos and Karim Benzema weren’t in condition to start the game. More youth products were brought on in the second half, with Sergio Arribas and Antonio Blanco earning some valuable minutes.
On paper, title-chasing Real Madrid drawing with relegation-battling Getafe should be considered two points dropped, but the reality of this stalemate is much more complex, starting not least with the list of absentees. In what is generally a damning indictment of a team’s fortunes, goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois was fantastic, pulling off numerous stunning saves to keep his side in with a chance.
The Belgian netminder has been perhaps one of the best players in La Liga this campaign, let alone just at Real Madrid, as he has helped his side reach this point in the season, possibly retaining their championship, with vital contributions in tight wins throughout the campaign.
Zinedine Zidane has repeatedly said in the last couple of weeks that his team are physically at their limit, but this weekend that limit has apparently disappeared, as the Frenchman says his team “have no limit” and will “fight until the end.”
Marcelo told the on-pitch interviewer immediately after the final whistle that the team considered the result as one point won, as opposed to two dropped. That line will serve los blancos emotionally, helping them take positives from a difficult night in which the league leaders grew some distance on them, but it handed their city rivals another opportunity to slip up and get away with it.
That’s how this La Liga title race has been playing out over the past months, and likely will play out until the end. Atleti went into this weekend with no margin for error; every game a must-win or else they lose the lead. This weekend they gained some slight margin for error.
That shouldn’t sound too negative either, because the reality is that this season is a tough grind that must be simply gotten through rather than enjoyed. Slip-ups are inevitable, and Atleti seeing their rivals below them dropping points may perhaps let them loosen up, which could in turn let them play with a freedom that such intense pressure can often render impossible.
Goal of the week: Sergio Canales finished off a brilliantly worked training ground move with a beautiful strike into the corner of the net in Real Betis’s exciting 2-2 draw with Valencia. Nabil Fekir, who had already given Betis a lead earlier in the game with a stunning half-volley, looked as though he had won the argument with Canales to have a strike on goal from a free kick just outside the box. As Fekir made his run up, Joaquín dashed from the middle of the awaiting pack and to everyone’s surprise the free kick was a controlled pass to the feet of the veteran skipper who laid it off to Canales, now in a much more central position and with a clear path to goal in front of him, who struck finely past Jaume Doménech.