Following a pair of uninspiring affairs to welcome the New Year, a back-to-full-strength Atlético got off to a sparkling start at the Vicente Calderón on Sunday night when they took on a very tame Real Zaragoza side.
Only an unusually imprecise Falcao prevented this match from ending in a blowout. The 2-0 final score belied what was taking place on the pitch, as the encounter had all the makings of one of those 4-0 thrashings that raises the Rojiblanco faithful’s egos to an intolerable-to-bystanders level.
Nonetheless, the victory was Atleti’s 14th of the season in La Liga–one shy of our total from all of last season.
Los Colchoneros have now put together an extraordinary 16-game win streak at Cholo Castle©, and haven’t conceded a goal there in eight straight matches in all competitions.
With the triumph, Diego Simeone’s men kept pace with a near flawless league-leading Barcelona, who finished the first round with an absurd 55 of 57 points after defeating Málaga. Tito Vilanova’s men thus, were able to maintain the insurmountable 11-point gap between themselves and their closest contenders.
The three points taken from los Maños did help us regain our seven point lead over Real Madrid, and we remain 10 points ahead of Betis, now the sole holders of fourth-place and our upcoming Copa del Rey foes.
Speaking of which, the exciting Copa quarter-final first leg clash against the Verdiblancos takes place on Thursday at the Vicente Calderón.
It will be very important to take a comfortable advantage into Sevilla for the return leg, and there’s no reason to believe Simeone won’t roll out the heavy artillery to achieve just that.
After Barça’s win at Málaga, Andrés Iniesta was asked to comment on his squad’s 18-point lead over Real Madrid. The midfielder was quick to point out to Radio COPE that the Blaugrana are “11 points ahead of Atleti; they are the ones chasing us and who we must take into consideration in this regard”.
Post-game quotes and notes:
Simeone loves his ‘Beast’; no, not that one perverts…we mean Diego Costa
“The first half was almost perfect; we put pressure in our opponents’ territory, with very good chances by our forwards in advanced positions, and with an extraordinary Diego Costa,” Atlético head coach Diego Simeone told reporters in the post-game press conference.
“I think the team keeps showing a clear identity, regardless of if we play better or worse, we have a defined identity that helped us close out a great first round.”
‘El Cholo’ continued to lavish praise on Costa, who turned in another excellent performance but who seemed angry with having been taken off at the 75th minute mark. Television cameras caught the mighty Brazilian having a bit of a tantrum on the bench, with Tiago doing his best to cool the big guy off.
“Diego Costa’s performance, especially in the first half, was incredible,” Simeone said.
“The team was obsessed with winning the game and they showed just that: an obsession with winning. I think we took the match because of that.”
He continued: “We always expect the best, and evidently the [second round of our previous campaign] was very good and we had the opportunity to do some important work in the pre-season.
“With the exception of Diego [Ribas], no players left from the previous campaign and players arrived to give us more possibilities and strengthen the group and the team.”
Cholo then shrugged off questions regarding the presence of Rayo Vallecano attacker Léo Baptistão at the Calderón on Sunday, who several sources claim has already been sold to Atleti. The youngster was spotted at a bar just outside the confines of our stadium before proceedings got underway by our very own Ricardo Menéndez. Photographs later revealed the gifted young Brazilian watched the bout from a suite box at the Colchonero stronghold.
“I prefer to talk about the players that are currently on the squad that are always more important than the possible players to come, even if they are good players,” Cholo concluded.
Tiago hits peak form before abruptly succumbing to injury
Atleti midfielder Tiago shook off the injury that kept him from training with the group this past week, and went on to turn in one of his best showings since arriving at Atlético three winters ago.
The former Portugal international, who has spent a great deal of his time at Atleti warming the bench, was handed his third consecutive start in La Liga, and it’s amazing what a little confidence can do for a player.
The 31-year-old broke the deadlock with a gorgeous header from a corner kick, nabbing his second goal this season (both in La Liga) and his 10th in red and white.
“It’s always good to score goals,” the former Juventus man told Vavel.
“I knew my son was going to watch the game so I am very happy for him.”
With Simeone apparently disappointed with Mario Suárez for the Atleti youth product’s reaction to being called out by his coach following our loss to Barcelona at the Camp Nou, Tiago has been the Argentine tactician’s choice at midfield to partner up with Gabi, while Mario has been banished to the bench.
Though there were reports claiming Mario has been suffering from a minor injury, it seems his adverse situation is more of a technical decision as opposed to one influenced by a possible strain.
In fact, an ominous tweet by Mario on Saturday night seemed to foretell he would not appear in the fold on Sunday.
“The important thing is not what happens to you, but how you confront those things that happen,” Suárez had posted on his Twitter account.
Unfortunately for Tiago, either Mario’s girlfriend Malena Costa or stalker Susanne Offermann (or both), stuck a needle in a voodoo doll that resembled him to ensure their man would reclaim his place, as Tiago sustained an injury 20 minutes after the break that forced him to come off.
A faulty Falcao still manages to get his name on the scoresheet
“He scored his goal and he always contributes with his work; he created opportunities and he’s our man,” Tiago said of Falcao after the game.
The statistics showed what was plainly evident before our eyes: ‘El Tigre’ forgot to sharpen his claws before arriving to our grounds. Of all Atleti’s starters, Falcao had the lowest pass accuracy, with a lowly 64% success rate*.
The 26-year-old, who prior to the match dedicated his Globe Soccer Award for Best Player of 2012 and his FIFPro World XI plaque to Atleti supporters in attendance, was imprecise with his shots throughout the game but did convert his seventh penalty of the present term. According to Opta Sports, he leads all of Europe’s major leagues in the spot kick department.
The goal was the Colombian’s 18th in La Liga and 21st overall in the 2012/13 campaign.
Pedro Martín of COPE reports that the strike ties the club record of goals in a first half of a season, previously held by Baltazar. The former Atleti forward achieved the feat in the 1988/89 season. Mr. Martín also pointed out that Falcao is the first non-Barcelona or Real Madrid player to tally 18 in a first round in the 21st century.
Hours after the match, our leading scorer tweeted: “Nice victory and 3 points today in our home! Great support of our fans! Pretty Thanks!”
It’s the second time the ferocious tiger uses that unique expression of gratitude: pretty thanks, which is not a literal translation from a Spanish phrase.
Is he mixing it up with “pretty good”? Maybe. But AtléticoFans reader and close friend Mais Raad may have a better theory. She surmises that it may be “an extra-special kind of gratitude” expressing “a beauty in the gratitude”. Sure, why not.
Godin praises the defensive work of the entire team
“All the statistics are positive because we are doing things well and we keep on winning games and tallying up points,” centre-back Diego Godín told reporters after the game.
“It’s very clear to us what our objective is and we have to continue to win match-after-match, and more-so the games at home, which are fundamental in this second round.”
He continued: “We, the players and the fans, can’t get too comfortable. This match looked like it was an easy one but it wasn’t, because if we hadn’t ran nor stuck our legs out the way we did, this game would not have been won. Matches are won with hard work and effort.
“We’re doing well in defence and that is key and positive, but it is the work of the whole team, that is very coordinated in defence, starting with Falcao and I believe there is no mystery. If we didn’t work as a team, it would be very difficult to defend well.”
Arda makes amends with sublime performance
Arda, who made a lot of people in Rojiblanco land upset with his remarks over the Christmas break with regard to wanting to leave the club this summer, rocked the house against Manolo Jímenez’s men.
The Turkish wonder led the squad with an 85% success rate from his 60 pass attempts according to WhoScored, and blasted a great shot from outside the box that Zaragoza ‘keeper Roberto just got his fingertips to.
The former Galatasaray captain also won the penalty kick that helped us widen our lead.
When he was replaced by Raúl García in the 85th minute, all he heard was the applause of those fans in attendance, and rightfully so.
- A characteristic that is illustrative of our dominance at home this season is our tendency to play the vast majority of matches deep in our opponents’ territory. Fullbacks Juanfran and Filipe spend the games very high up the pitch virtually unchallenged at either flank, with Gabi and Mario or, on Sunday, Tiago, providing cover for Miranda and Godín at the back–our holding midfielders themselves stationed at about the midfield circle. What on paper begins as a 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1, quickly becomes a 2-4-3-1, with a curious role reversal against Zaragoza featuring at the top. Instead of Falcao spearheading our attack as is generally the case, the Colombian was a bit withdrawn — playing just behind Diego Costa. *Falcao clearly struggled in this role, one which required him to get more involved in receiving and dishing out passes–an aspect of his game that he does not excel at. This arrangement also took place against Celta, another match Falcao struggled in. However, against Deportivo, Costa played behind Falcao and all ‘El Tigre’ went on to do was score five goals.
- Thibaut Courtois earned his 9th clean sheet in La Liga and 12th overall this season. He now has 35 since joining Atleti.
- Gabi had a standout performance against his former club, notching assist number three on the season by way of a corner kick finished off neatly by Tiago’s curls.
- In addition to their perfect home record, Atlético are the team who have scored the most home goals in La Liga this season, with 30. Barcelona have 29 at the Camp Nou and Real Madrid have tallied 28 at the Bernabéu. Atleti, along with Real Sociedad, have also conceded the least amount of goals at their home stadium (6).
- Atleti have scored in 27 straight matches played at the Calderón, a feat they had not achieved since 1978. (COPE)
- Filipe, Gabi, Mario and Diego Costa remain on four yellow cards and one shy of an automatic one-game suspension.
- Atlético had never won all home games of the first round in their history. (InfoAtleti)
- Spain correspondent of Gazzetta dello Sport, Filippo Ricci, reminded us that a year ago, Atleti were 23 points behind Real Madrid.