Radamel Falcao was the hero on Wednesday night for Atlético Madrid, as the Rojiblancos edged European rivals Athletic Bilbao in a thrilling encounter at the Vicente Calderón.
Victory was the only option for Diego Simeone’s side after Sunday’s disappointing slumber at Mallorca, and the players duly responded with a memorable performance.
Our opponents arrived in the Spanish capital on a mixed run, and despite having earned worldwide admiration for their fabulous Europa League demolition of Manchester United, had lost two in succession in La Liga, and needed the points just as desperately as we did.
Atleti started brightly and looked to pile pressure on the visitors right from the whistle. It took just two minutes to register our first shot on target, although goalkeeper Iraizoz was equal to Arda’s speculative effort.
The Turk’s return to the line-up made a clear difference to the home side, with him at the heart of most of our play. Soon after, Arda switched wings and made a bright run down the right side, but his dangerous cross was just too high for anybody to connect.
Falcao was the next to try his luck, but after a promising break he could only shoot wide from 25 yards.
Athletic came more and more into the match as it wore on, and were appealing for a penalty midway through the half when the ball looked to have struck the hand of Juanfran. Replays proved inconclusive, and it would have been harsh on the stand-in right-back.
Despite a positive start, the red and whites were struggling to unlock the Basque’s defence, with the majority of our efforts coming from range. Arda shot just over after a cutting in from the left, and Gabi spurned a promising free-kick effort, but that was the best it would get during the opening period.
The away side ventured into the final third on a few occasions, but Godín and Miranda stood strong and were able to handle most of the danger.
Manager Marcelo Bielsa was forced to make a change at half-time, bringing on Mikel San José for Ander, and shifting Javi Martínez up into midfield. However, it was Atleti yet again who flew out of the traps.
On Sunday we had been caught out by the goal early in the second half, but we learned our lesson and went on to inflict the fate on Athletic. Adrián found himself one-on-one with the last defender, and after his shot was saved, Radamel Falcao pounced on the rebound to open the scoring.
Much unlike the first 45 minutes, the game soon became stretched and chances were presenting themselves. From the re-start, Falcao almost helped himself to a quickfire double, but this time he couldn’t find the power to head Arda’s cross into the net.
Los Leones remained a constant threat on the counter attack, although the clear cut opportunities were falling to Atleti, with Koke the next to threaten. First, the youngster fired over after a nice move down the left, and then curled a menacing free-kick just above Iraizoz’ crossbar.
Gabi soon came close too when his shot whistled wide, but on 73 minutes the deadly Falcao made no mistake and gave Simeone’s team the cushion they needed.
Like against Granada the other week it was Juanfran who provided the assist, latching on to a clever ball from Salvio before crossing for the Colombian to head home.
The game continued at break-neck speed, and Athletic created numerous chances in the closing stages to halve the deficit. Susaeta would have given his team a route back into the match eight minutes from the end if not for a miraculous clearance from another substitute, Perea, right on the goalline.
Travelling fans were probably already up celebrating, but somehow the veteran defender managed to hook the ball away from harm’s reach.
Atleti couldn’t find a way out of their own half, but still almost managed to score again when Salvio tried from inside the centre circle. The Argentine’s audacious effort flew just past the post.
Inevitably, the away side’s pressure did pay off and Javi Martínez was able to grab a consolation goal, but it counted for nothing in the end as the Colchoneros held out for a massive win.
Referee Estrada Fernández’ whistle came as a huge relief to all inside the Calderón, and a fantastic effort from the players was rewarded with us moving above Bielsa’s team in the race for the Champions League places.
What had unfolded was the true definition of a game of two halves, and one that we will hopefully be looking back on at the end of the season as a key moment. On Sunday we continue fighting, as bottom-side Zaragoza prepare to welcome us at La Romareda.
Line-up: Courtois; Juanfran, Miranda, Godín, Filipe; Mario, Gabi, Koke (“72 Salvio), Arda (“78 Perea); Adrián (“86 Domínguez) and Falcao.
Goals: 1-0 Falcao (“50); 2-0 Falcao (“73); 2-1 Javi Martínez (“90)