Dejected following their eighth consecutive loss to eternal rivals Real Madrid at the Vicente Calderón last Wednesday, Atlético must now regroup and head out to face off against neighbours Rayo Vallecano for a derby with much less fanfare than the one played out at midweek.
Kick off at quite possibly the least creatively named sports venue in the world, the Vallecas Campo de Fútbol stadium, is set for 21:30 CET on Sunday.
Only two points separate the two Madrid-based sides in the league table, with los Colchoneros edging out the Vallecas neighbourhood outfit 42 to 40 which, technically – though we write this very begrudgingly – renders our recently-promoted opponents our direct rivals.
Yes. Direct rivals. Accept it. If we lose on Sunday, a scenario not too unlikely given the nature of our last three away games (and come to think of it, the vast majority of our road matches throughout the season), ‘Rayito’ would leap frog us in the table and, should Getafe secure a point against their visitors Sevilla, Atleti would finally be in fourth place, though not the fourth place they’ve been aiming for the past couple of years.
Diego Simeone’s men could end up as the Spanish capital’s fourth ranked team out of four, but all right. Enough with the pessimism.
A win instantly revives our bid for a European place for our next campaign; although, currently eight points out of contention for a Champions League berth, at this point – barring a series of miracles – qualification into the elite competition seems to be beyond the realm of possibility.
But ‘El Cholo’ hasn’t lost faith in his work and that of his pupils and remains convinced that UEFA play is in store for us next year.
“I believe a lot in this squad,” he was quoted as saying by ESPN Soccernet.
“Since I took this job, I have had a base group of players to work with and we believe we can finish the season competitively in the league and in Europe. This is our vision. I will not criticise the players.”
The Argentine tactician fired off a warning shot at the Spanish media, sternly telling reporters in attendance at the pre-game press conference on Saturday: “Do not criticise my players, that’s all I’m saying.”
Though Simeone would never publicly single out a player for scapegoating reasons, what triggered his defensiveness is the fact that the press speculated – based on the apparent starting line-up this weekend as deducted from the team’s training sessions – that the Atleti boss was punishing a bloc of players for their performance in the 4-1 loss to los Merengues.
Luis Perea, Diego Godín, Arda Turan and Gabi, all in the fold on Wednesday, were seen training with the regular benchwarmers, while Alvaro Domínguez and the three players back from suspension: Eduardo Salvio, Miranda and Mario Suárez, were spotted with the rest of the presumed starting XI.
Atleti have obviously struggled mightily away from their stadium, but they may be able to take advantage of Rayo’s squad woes.
Our very own Diego Costa, who has been a vital player for José Ramón Sandoval’s men since arriving at Vallecas this past winter transfer window on loan, along with fellow Atlético-owned loanees Joel and Pulido, will all be unavailable to participate against their parent club as per contractual agreement, unless of course, our foes decide to shell out the roughly €350,000 required to allow them to play.
Liverpool striker/attacking midfielder Dani Pacheco, loaned out to Atlético last summer and then quickly placed on loan at Rayo, is not contractually bound from facing us, though he may be tactically prevented from seeing playing time.
Also out for Rayo, through injury, are Emiliano Armenteros, Míchel, Sueliton Pereira, Javi Fuego and Labaka.
Speaking to MARCA, Rayo winger Piti made it clear he doesn’t want his club to be counted out of the clash.
“For us the games are difficult no matter who plays and against adversity this team has always responded well,” he said.
“It is true that they are important absences for us but moaning about it won’t help anything.
“We are desperate to play against a big team and not just put on a good show, but win.'”
Simeone, for his part, remains guarded in spite of los Franjirrojos patch-work match selection.
“They are a difficult opponent,” he said.
“Above all they are very dangerous from middle to front and we have to be wary of this. We need to counter-act their intensity and aggressiveness that they usually play with at home.”
Atlético match selection:
Goalkeepers: Courtois, Sergio Asenjo
Defenders: Godín, Filipe Luis, Álvaro Domínguez, Perea, Miranda
Midfielders: Tiago, Arda Turan, Gabi, Koke, Juanfran, Diego, Mario, Salvio
Delanteros: Adrián, Falcao, Pedro Martín
Rayo match selection:
Goalkeepers: Cobeño, Ismael
Defenders: Tito, Casado, Arribas, Raúl Bravo, Alcañiz
Midfielders: Piti, Movilla, Rober, Trashorras, Diamanka, Diego Benito, Michu
Forwards: Lass, Pacheco, Tamudo, Delibasic
Referee: Antonio Miguel Mateu Lahoz
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