Europe take heed!
Atlético will be bumping shoulder-to-shoulder with the continent’s finest next season, having clinched direct qualification into the Champions League group stage for 2013/14 with their 3-1 win over Celta on Wednesday.
In their typical away game fashion, Atleti had spent most of the first half in Vigo feeling out their severely-threatened-with-relegation opponents without offering much of a punch.
Despite Simeone having let loose with a highly offensive-minded line-up — Falcao, Diego Costa and Adrián were all fielded from the start — his men’s woes in front of goal from this past weekend in A Coruña continued until half time.
But it was a whole different story in the second half.
Having gone over 135 minutes without mustering a measly shot on target, it only took two after the break for los Colchoneros to finally hit the mark with a straight-from-the-drawing-board corner kick executed to sheer perfection.
Desperate for points and down a goal, our hosts began to sacrifice defence in order to strengthen their attack–but their plan backfired when Juanfran fired home our second strike.
Atlético survived a three-minute scare following a very rare slip-up by an otherwise secure Courtois, with Falcao sealing the deal with our third goal of the night.
The triumph brought Atleti’s points haul up to 72 for the present campaign with three matches to go–their highest total since the 87 they tallied in 1995/96 and the second highest ever in club history.
In addition to the roughly €20 million in prizes and earnings that a berth in UEFA’s top club tournament offers, Atlético now have a handy bargaining chip when it comes to the recruitment of reinforcements in the summer.
This weekend, Barcelona will pay the Vicente Calderón a visit, but ‘Cholo’ may opt to play it safe against the Blaugrana and rest most of our starters ahead of the Copa del Rey final.
Post-game notes and quotes:
Simeone praises everyone involved with the club
“It was one of the objectives,” said Diego Simeone of his men having guaranteed themselves Champions League play for next season.
“I want to highlight the work of everyone at Atlético Madrid. We went for it when we first got here in December . We tried to make it; to be alongside the best of Europe and in the first six months we were close, but it wasn’t to be. We won the Europa League and the Super Cup and we worked at every level of the club to achieve it.”
‘El Cholo’ continued: “What the players have done, I point it out again, is incredible. Behind this team there are a lot of people that go unseen: the assistants, the physios, the doctor, the directors, everyone that works at the club on a daily basis, and it’s an important day for all the guys and for the people that work at Atlético Madrid and I’d like to thank them all for contributing and making this a reality.”
On whether or not his squad will take Sunday’s clash easy, the Argentine tactician said: “We can’t allow ourselves to look past the next game because we have never done that, and we have to look to Barcelona.
“We know that it will be a Sunday in which we’ll be able to see people get together to enjoy this direct qualification to the Champions League in a beautiful bout against the possible champion of the league.”
The 43-year-old then empathised with Celta’s plight.
“It’s difficult to play in the situation that Celta’s players are in,” he said.
“Obviously, the tension impedes you and the truth is they gave their all to take the match but we played well and put together a great game.”
Another day, another record for Courtois
Clad in his customary Big Bird suit, Thibaut Courtois surpassed Abel Resino’s record of consecutive minutes away from the Calderón without conceding a goal, and he did so in the presence of the legendary former Atleti goalkeeper and now Celta coach.
But it wasn’t the Belgian shotstopper’s best night, as he bungled a fairly easy attempt by Augusto Fernández that ended his streak at 681 minutes without allowing a goal on the road.
Like a caring big brother, centre back Diego Godín reassured our 20-year-old phenom after his mistake. ‘Tibu’ can do no harm in Rojiblanco land.
“We have an extraordinary goalkeeper. We always placed our trust in him and I think he still has a lot of room to grow. Hopefully he will do that with us.” – Simeone
Costa nabs 17th goal of the season
Back from having served a one-match ban over the weekend, Diego Costa, who looked a bit rusty in the first 45 minutes delivering a pair of imprecise passes, broke the deadlock with a header after positioning himself well inside the box.
It was the Brazilian’s 17th goal of the season (8th in La Liga), and he later picked up his eighth assist of the year when he served as provider for Juanfran.
“The important thing was to win the match and assure ourselves third place as soon as possible,” our relatively tamed ‘Beast’ told the press afterwards.
“We’ll now be under less pressure for our next games. We have a nice match against Barcelona on Sunday before the final.”
He continued: “We can’t ask the fans for more. They’re with us to the death throughout the whole season, always cheering us on. We have to keep it up and we are very grateful.
“I work to improve every day, and on a team like Atleti you have to fight your competition every day to make it into the starting line-up. Hopefully I can continue to grow at Atleti,” he concluded. He then ate the microphone, swallowing it whole without a single bite.
Juanfran gets his meal goal for the season
Since he began donning the red and white shirt, Juanfran has scored one goal per season (three)–all of them away from home (Mallorca, Rennes, Vigo). This is a bit unsurprising to those of us that are convinced the beggarly-looking right-back has no place to call home.
Juanfran’s relevance on Wednesday night can partially be attributed to Adrián’s presence on the right-wing, as the Asturian striker serves as a reliable associate for him.
“We’re very happy we secured third place, but we want more,” the 28-year-old said after the encounter.
“We want to win against Barcelona on Sunday, win the final against Real Madrid and, after that, win the remaining two games in La Liga.”
He continued: “It’s really nice to score, I had gone a long time without doing so. My position isn’t the type that allows me to score a lot of goals but I’m happy, above all else, for having helped the team win.
“Once again, Atléticos can be proud of their team. To defeat Barça, beat Real Madrid and win the last games in the league would be the icing on a fantastic season.”
Falcao’s boots offered Celta defenders a false sense of security
Placing Celta’s defence under a hypnotic daze with his now infamous pink-bubbled Puma boots, Falcao sent entranced defenders this-way-and-that-way before blasting one past Javi Varas to put out our foes’ late spark.
It was ‘El Tigre’s’ 27th goal in the current La Liga campaign, his best mark in league play since arriving in Europe. The deadly Colombian now has 33 overall in 2012/13 and is 3 goals shy of his total from his inaugural season at Atleti.
Typically criticised for his lack of finesse outside the 20-yard box, our ferocious feline had a remarkable 94% pass success rate on the evening and easily could have bagged his first assist of the season had Adrián been sharper with a pass Falcao gave him at about the penalty spot.
Levante are now the only Primera club the 27-year-old hasn’t scored against, so he should probably stick around for another year.
- Miranda’s brilliant assist on Diego Costa’s goal was his first ever with Atleti after 86 appearances.
- At Balaídos, Adrián made his 100th appearance with Atlético (65 Liga, 28 UEFA, 7 Copa del Rey). He has scored 23 goals in red and white, 19 of them in his inaugural year at Atleti.
- The club reported that midfielder Mario Suárez was taken out at the half due to back pain. “Thanks for the concern! I have some pain in my back and let’s hope it’s nothing more! Thank you everyone and Champions League hugs!” Mario wrote on Twitter.
- Following a terrible set-piece game against Deportivo without specialist Koke, Atleti made the most of a corner taken by the cantera product to score their 29th league goal from a dead ball situation. Only Real Madrid have more set-piece goals (30) than los Colchoneros.
- Atleti reserve squad members Óliver Torres, Saúl Ñíguez and Javi Manquillo have been called-up to the Spanish U-20 side by Julen Lopetegui for a friendly against Paraguay’s U-20 team on the 14th in preparation for this summer’s U-20 World Cup to take place in Turkey.