And breathe Colchoneros!
Three more points in the bag and Atlético hold on to second place for at least another week after coming out of the Estadi Cornellà-El Prat triumphantly for the first time in their five trips to the Barcelona-based ground.
Los Rojiblancos have put their supporters through what feels like a season’s worth of suspense in the last three games, gutting out results over Rayo Vallecano, Real Betis and our freshest victims: Espanyol–all in a span of seven days.
After taking a 1-0 first half lead through a dazzling hook-up between Juanfran and Raúl García, Diego Simeone’s men were bit by the same second half bug that has caused them to fizzle out somewhat in the final 45 minutes of recent encounters.
In spite of their retreat following the break, Atleti were able to hold off the Periquitos’ tepid assault, securing their fifth straight league victory (seventh overall) and their 16th point in the domestic competition.
Atlético brought their extraordinary unbeaten streak up to 17 games, a statistic that is quite possibly too big for your average Rojiblanco fan (us included) to fathom.
Perhaps most impressive though was the fact that ‘El Cholo’s’ hombres earned this win without the services of superstar striker Radamel Falcao, who will likely sit out of Thursday evening’s Europa League group stage bout in Madrid versus Czech outfit Viktoria Plzen in order to arrive to next weekend’s league clash in the best possible condition.
We welcome direct rivals Málaga, who edged us out by a nose in last year’s race for a Champions League berth, to the Vicente Calderón on Sunday.
We’ll get a shot at a little revenge and at widening the current two-point lead we have over Pellegrini’s men, as they are close on our heels with 14 points in the Primera División table.
League-leaders Barcelona host Real Madrid on the same night, and should our eternal city rivals overcome their bitter foes, we’ll have another chance to stand at the top of the hill in Spain.
The Blaugrana kept us at bay this weekend by storming back from a 2-0 deficit to beat Sevilla in a controversial affair on Saturday at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán.
Post-game notes and quotes:
Simeone pleased with his squad’s defensive performance, solidarity
“We came to face off against an opponent harmed by some of their results but with the urgent necessity to play a good game,” Atleti boss Diego Simeone said in the post-game press conference.
“I think we were able to bring a concrete plan to the field to be able to nullify the areas of their game that could have harmed us–removing Simao, Verdú and Moreno from the game as they are the players that help Espanyol grow in a football sense.”
The Argentine tactician then analysed the match in his typical manner of comparing and contrasting both halves.
“In the first half, we came out well and we could have gone into the break with more tranquility,” he said.
“That was not the case and in the second half I think Espanyol played well. They decided to change their system of play and sent in a lot of offensive players. We were only able to push forward on a few occasions but, we set a trend of defensive fortitude.
“That makes me very happy.”
With regard to the absence of his team’s leading scorer Falcao, Simeone said, “We consider that the most important thing we have today at Atlético Madrid is the team.
“What makes me happy is that the best thing Atlético Madrid has is strength as a group.”
Raúl García scores in third consecutive appearance
Raúl García has managed to find the back of the net in all three of his starts in the current campaign, his latest goal – a beautiful diving header – serving as the match-winner over the Blanquiblaus.
Prior to returning to Osasuna for his one-year loan spell last season, Raúl had spent most of his time at Atleti deployed as a central midfielder (often alongside former Colchonero Paulo Assunção) within our characteristic double-pivot system, charged with both attacking and defending duties in the mold of a box-to-box type of midfielder.
Raúl largely failed in the role as he was unable to shine in either department, offense or defence, earning him the warm hostility of an impatient Vicente Calderón crowd.
But the Pamplona-born man acquired a great deal of experience along the way, arriving to the Rojillos in the last campaign a seasoned, battle-hardened veteran.
Playing in a more advanced midfield position in 2011/12, often as a playmaker, García’s production soared, scoring a career high 11 goals and 8 assists.
It’s really no wonder he caught Simeone’s eye. The coach chose to keep the 26-year-old at the Calderón as opposed to selling him off as club officials would have preferred over the off-season. Cholo was likely very attracted by García’s versatility as a now-proven attacking option with solid tackling skills.
Though most fans remain skeptical of this return stint in red and white, some see promise given his output last season and in the early goings of this one, and, not to be underestimated, in Cholo’s vouching of the footballer.
“It was a match we wanted to win to remain up top,” Raúl said afterwards.
“I’m happy on a personal level but, most of all, for the team.”
He continued: “We’re doing things well. [The season] is very long and what we’ve learned from other occasions is that we must remain humble. We must continue to work hard and at the end of the season, we’ll see what happens.
“I don’t consider myself a starter. What I want to do is work hard and take advantage of the opportunities when they arise.
“What’s important is that the team is up at the top.”
Courtois back between the sticks
Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois returned to the fold, overcoming a minor knee injury. He was back to his premium Belgian white chocolate form on Sunday, displaying poise beyond his years en route to three crucial saves (a season high) in arguably his best match of the present term.
The ‘keeper picked up his second clean sheet of the season, both coming in league play. By this time last year, Courtois already had seven overall shutouts (three in La Liga).
Arda limps off with injury but it’s possibly just a scare
Our Turkish warrior Arda went down with a knock after about an hour of play, requesting to be taken out immediately after a collision with an Espanyol player.
Fans braced for the worst, expecting a grim announcement from the club revealing a severe muscle strain that would result in a long injury lay-off of the beloved Turk.
Fortunately, if Radio Marca‘s Javier Amaro del Arco’s claim proves true at least, Arda sustained nothing more than a bruise (no muscle pull/tear) and should be okay.
Incidentally, Cristian ‘Cebolla’ Rodríguez, who replaced our No. 10, turned in a noteworthy 30-minute shift in which he got off two shots on target and displayed blazing speed up the flank.
- Juanfran’s pinpoint cross to Raúl that resulted in our lone goal was the former Osasuna man’s second assist of the season and ninth as a member of Atlético.
- It took Manzano’s Atleti 12 games to reach the 16 point mark last season (20 November 2011). Simeone’s 2012/13 squad is earning points at double-speed, hauling in 16 points in half the time: after just 6 games.
- Despite not participating in this round, Falcao remains atop the Pichichi table as La Liga’s top scorer. The Colombian, who watched the game from home, got a dose of what he and his team-mates put us through on a weekly basis, admitting on Twitter: “You suffer so much [watching] from the outside!!! Extremely important victory to remain in 2nd place in La Liga. Vamos Atleti”.