Match preview: Atlético vs. Levante

Simeone calls for improvement as the second half of the season gets underway

Atleti took a point in 1-1 draw at Levante in August

Atleti took a point in 1-1 draw at Levante in August

On Sunday, Atlético have a chance to both extend their incredible win streak at home when they host Levante, and to close in on league-leaders Barcelona, who suffered their first defeat in La Liga this season at Anoeta on Saturday.

Kick-off at the Vicente Calderón, or as it has been re-christened: ‘Cholo Castle’, is set for 19:00 CET.

As Atleti’s second half gets underway, the Blaugrana remain ahead by a substantial margin (11 points), but a grain-of-sand-sized hope for a Colchonero league title can come in the form of a victory over los Granotes–which would bring the Red and Whites to within eight from the top.

Over at the Culé capital, hometown sports tabloid Sport shrugged off Tito Vilanova’s men’s 3-2 defeat to Real Sociedad. At variance with club valors of humildat and such, its front cover read: “No Big Deal (The League is Already Won)”.

Outraged Rojiblanco fans called for ‘El Cholo’ to post the paper’s cover inside our men’s locker room, but the Atleti boss of all bosses likely will have none of it, and will prefer to fix his men’s attention exclusively on the clash at hand.

“We’re not a team that can afford to look at the numbers,” Diego Simeone said in the pre-game press conference.

“We have to live off our effort, hard work and talent. The moment we get out of this mindset, we’ll get distracted with things that will do us a lot of harm.”

He continued: “Atlético have to improve as a team and that will allow us to continue on the same path we have taken in the first round.

“Right now, we’re at the halfway point. The season is very long and we have to remain very attentive to what can happen, so we’ll have to focus on more of the same, that is, on match-to-match.”

The Argentine tactician then specified which areas in particular his squad, who are currently riding a run of nine games at the Calderón without conceding a goal (23 goals in favour), can do better at.

“We haven’t reached our peak form yet,” he said. “The team can express itself better, it can have more continuity of play; we can and should want to improve and if we want it, I know we can do it, because I know them; they are guys that, whenever they commit themselves to doing things, they compete to accomplish them.”

Simeone will be without starting right-back Juanfran, who suffered a muscle injury during Atleti’s midweek Copa del Rey first leg quarter-final triumph over Betis.

Atlético B right-back Javi Manquillo was called-up to the first team to fill-in, but it remains to be seen if Cholo will opt to roll-out with the canterano or, as he admitted he might, go with a three-man defence composed of Miranda, Diego Godín and Cata Díaz.

“What about Filipe Luís?” you ask? The Brazilian apparently trained apart from the group with an unspecified strain in the days after our cup win and is a doubt for this match.

Defenders Domingo Cisma and Jorge Pulido were left off the squad through tactical decision.

Simeone had words of praise for our opponents ahead of the encounter, congratulating them for “putting together a great group and a very strong team structure with a smaller budget”.

The darlings of the previous season, Juan Ignacio Martínez’ men presently sit in eighth but are well within reach of a Champions League place. With 30 points, they are only 4 away from fourth-place Betis.

Levante come into this encounter on the back of consecutive 2-0 away losses against Real Zaragoza (Copa del Rey) and Betis (Liga).

Curiously, Levante’s Juanfran will also be unavailable for this game–the veteran left-back’s absence due to suspension.

We opened the 2012/13 campaign against the Valencian outfit at their Ciutat de Valencia stadium back in August in a match that ended in a 1-1 draw.

Atlético match selection:
Goalkeepers: Sergio Asenjo, Courtois
Defenders: Godín, Filipe Luis, Cata Díaz, Miranda, Javi Manquillo
Midfielders: Mario Suárez, Tiago, Koke, Raúl García, Arda Turan, Cristian Rodríguez, Gabi, Emre
Forwards: Adrián, Falcao, Diego Costa

Levante match selection:
Goalkeepers: Munúa, Keylor Navas
Defenders: Navarro, Héctor Rodas, Nikos, Ballesteros, Pedro López, Chris
Midfielders: Barkero, El Zhar, Iborra, Pedro Ríos, Valdo, Juanlu, Michel, Diop
Forwards: Martins, Roger, Rubén

Referee: Carlos Delgado Ferreiro