Athletic Bilbao socked Atlético in the gut on Sunday with a spirited second half effort and, just like that, los Rojiblancos’ seven game unbeaten streak was snapped.
The 3-0 drubbing left Atleti fans feeling visceral pain for the first time in a while, the agony having increased with each blow dealt by los Leones earlier. The uneasiness began after Athletic’s first strike–the strange discomfort stemming from the fact that los Colchoneros hadn’t given up the first goal in a game in almost two months (Viktoria Plzen).
Diego Simeone, who pretty much has the unconditional support of the Colchonero faithful, took some heat from his congregation–his heavy line-up tinkering coming under fire. The Atlético coach may have to reconsider his approach next time his men travel.
With team captains Gabi and Falcao unavailable for the bout, ‘El Cholo’ surprisingly chose to field four back-ups as opposed to just two.
Benchwarmers Emre and Cata Díaz came into the starting XI, while more-utilised substitutes ‘Cebolla’ Rodríguez and Raúl García were also given the nod.
Our roughneck line-up (think Cata, Costa, Cebolla, Raúl) suggested the encounter might get heated in a hurry, but it took until the second half for the bones to start crunching–the visitors lucky to make it to the final whistle without a dismissal or two.
What we saw from our hombres was what the Spanish call poco fútbol y mucha leña, or: a lack of football and a lot of hacking.
Clearly, Simeone felt our upcoming semi-final cup clash against Sevilla on Thursday was of greater importance when he drew up his plans for Sunday.
While La Liga is certainly the priority for an Atleti in desperate need of securing a Champions League berth for next season, was it really unwise of Cholo to rest a few starters in preparation for the Copa game?
Without trying to sound too apologetic for Simeone, the domestic competition is virtually impossible to win. It’s hard for some of us to accept that, but the fact of the matter is, Barcelona are unstoppable.
There’s the pride issue of finishing ahead of Real Madrid of course but that goal, while it would be absolutely glorious to achieve, is probably unattainable. It would require us to outperform the reigning Spanish champions over the course of the final 17 games.
Still, we can continue to enjoy our lead over our eternal rivals, now reduced to four points, for as long as it lasts. But our ultimate objective, third place or, at worst, fourth place, is still firmly in our grasp.
Now’s as good a time as any to retreat back to Madrid and seek safe harbour at Cholo Castle.
Let’s just hope this loss was a little hiccup and that we can turn the page with back-to-back strong performances at the Vicente Calderón against Sevilla on Thursday, and Betis in La Liga action on Sunday.
Post-game notes and quotes:
Simeone suffers first defeat to Athletic as a member of Atlético
Until Sunday, Diego Simeone had never lost to Athletic as an Atleti player or coach, Pedro Martin of COPE reported.
“We were aware of the difficulties we’d have against Athletic,” the Argentine tactician told reporters after the defeat.
“Both teams created chances, but after the second goal, they felt more comfortable and ended up putting together a good game.
“They deservedly won.”
Explaining his controversial squad decisions, Simeone said: “From the Levante match in La Liga to the previous match against Betis in cup play, we made five changes and today we made others in order to give players a chance and offer the team freshness.”
“Our opponents were better. Congratulations to Athletic,” Cholo concluded.
Courtois inspired by the ‘Thibauting’ movement?
Atleti’s on-loan goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, who is not ashamed to identify himself as a wholehearted Rojiblanco, turned in a spectacular performance against our Basque foes.
The Belgian youngster has been the subject of the global media’s attention this past week because of the now fully-established ‘Thibauting’ movement. Despite conceding an uncharacteristic three goals, the 20-year-old prevented his side from suffering further embarrassment with a splendid seven-save showing.
“It’s true that this was a strange game,” Courtois said.
“I received a lot of shots inside the box which is unusual, but I’m also there to stop those shots.
“It was a very tough match. We suffered for almost the entirety of the game, though we also had chances to score goals.”
Thibaut then spoke up in defence of Cholo’s line-up decisions.
“I think we had to make changes,” he said.
“We have a squad in which there is a lot of competition. If we play and win it’s because of the entire team, not because of one or two players that score or provide assists. Today, the 20 of us on the squad lost.”
With regard to Thursday’s semi-final first leg match versus Sevilla, Courtois said:
“We have to play like we did against Betis at home: looking for an advantage of at least two goals and finishing the game with a shutout. If we then score one away goal the match-up would be won.”
He continued: “Making it to the final of the Copa would be very important for this club. That’s why Thursday’s match is so important.
“I expect to pick up a clean sheet on Thursday,” Courtois concluded.
For an in-depth analysis of Cata Díaz’ performance: click here.
Atlético’s stinky away form is causing fans to worry a little
One of the most distinctive characteristics of Gregorio Manzano’s Atleti during the coach’s short stint last season was their atrocious away form.
Sunday’s defeat at La Catedral was very reminiscent of the Manzano era, and this fixture even resulted in the same scoreline as the one from the previous term. Eerily, Bilbao scored three second half goals at San Mámes in the last campaign as well.
But Gregorio deployed a very strong XI in this match-up that included Falcao, Arda and Diego, while Simeone’s version was a very diluted one.
It’s true that in the past 10 games we’ve only won a single match on the road (Granada), but bear in mind that almost half of those exits have either been Copa del Rey clashes already wrapped up in the first leg, or Europa League games featuring a bunch of our replacements.
Still, the numbers aren’t pretty. We’ve been outscored 17-4 away from the Calderón in those last 10 matches.
Meanwhile, at our stronghold, we’ve won 18 consecutive games. In the last 10 matches, Atleti have outscored their opponents 24-0.
“I’m not worried [about our away form],” Simeone said before admitting that his team “must improve”.
“The objective is to qualify for the Champions League. We know that a lot of games are coming up and every player on the squad has to be in good condition.” – ‘Cebolla’ Rodríguez
- Filipe Luís, one of our few bright spots against Athletic along with Courtois, was shown his fifth yellow card of the present Liga campaign and will be suspended on Sunday when we host Betis. A big fan of the cañito, or the figurative impregnation of a rival by cleanly penetrating the forbidden zone between his or her feet (aka: nutmeg), Filipe fertilised two Bilbao players’ imaginary eggs on Sunday night. Evidently, his emboldened performance came as a result of being called back up to the Brazilian national team after three years.
- Atlético’s only signing of the winter transfer window thus far, Emiliano Insúa, will presumably be handed his first start against Betis in replacement of Filipe, though Simeone could choose to deploy Domingo Cisma at left-back instead.
- Diego Costa, Mario Suárez and now Diego Godín are all on four yellow cards, one away from a one-match suspension.
- It’s commonly accepted among the red and white faithful that Cristian ‘Cebolla’ Rodríguez, who made his sixth league start with Atleti, is more valuable to the squad as a second half spark plug. Not so much if his name appears in the fold but, regardless, he always puts in a decent shift.
- Entering this match, Athletic and Atlético had achieved the same amount of victories in the Spanish top flight: 1,131. We now rank fourth all time in this statistic: 1. Real Madrid (1.520), 2. Barça (1,454), 3. Athletic (1,132) and 4. Atlético (1,131). (COPE)