Atlético grinded out a narrow 1-0 road victory over Málaga on Saturday to briefly take over the top spot in La Liga.
For a while, it appeared as if recent history would repeat itself.
Los Rojiblancos’ previous two visits to La Rosaleda had both ended in scoreless draws, so when the 70th minute mark was approaching, fans were hard-pressed to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Though Atleti looked the more dangerous side on the afternoon, clear-cut chances were few and far between.
Finally, with 20 minutes to spare, Diego Simeone’s men broke through.
Koke pounced on a softly-parried ball by Willy Caballero and struck it home for the lead.
Atleti’s league-best defence fended off their hosts for the remainder of the clash to pick up their seventh away win of the season.
Next on the agenda is Tuesday’s Copa del Rey round of 16 first-leg match at the Mestalla.
Four days after we take on Valencia, we square up against Barcelona at the Vicente Calderón for a colossal match-up between Spain’s top two outfits.
“It’s always nice to see yourself at the top of the table, and if it’s in first, even more so. We work hard to win each game and to get to the end of the season with a chance to win titles.” – Diego Godín
Post-game notes and quotes:
Teams go all out against Atleti, Simeone feels
Last Friday, Diego Simeone explained that Atleti have to work extra hard for everything they’d like to achieve–indirectly pointing out the financial advantage the league’s two richest clubs enjoy each year.
“Look at what it takes for us to win,” the Rojiblanco boss reiterated in his post-game press conference following Saturday’s triumph.
“There’s a huge difference between Real Madrid and Barcelona, and with the effort that we show we’re trying to put up a fight.
“We get excited taking it game-by-game, because with that approach, we have a chance. But we can’t go beyond that, because [Real and Barcelona] have more possibilities.”
‘El Cholo’ suggested his squad have become marked men.
“Opponents are making an enormous effort against us and work very well, just like what happened when we played Levante and Elche, and what happened today against Málaga,” he said.
“Málaga tried to play their game, giving us the ball and looking for counters, but they didn’t have any. They defended well and we didn’t create many goalscoring chances.
“We tried to control the game in different ways. In the first half, with Arda as the playmaker and in the second, with Adrián as a dual playmaker with Villa and, later, with the strength of [‘Cebolla’] Rodríguez. The match was won by the group. It was hard-fought, and if it hadn’t been for the joint effort and for the players that came in and how they performed, we would not have won.
With regard to being neck-and-neck with Barça at the top of the table, the Argentine tactician said: “It would be so much nicer if we’re in this position at the end of the season. There’s still a long way to go. We have to start looking to Valencia, who, with a new coach, will make things hard for us.
“Then there’s another big game at the Calderón next week.”
Koke to the rescue
Playing more withdrawn as a defensive midfielder in place of captain Gabi didn’t stop Koke from having a major impact on Saturday’s result.
The 21-year-old scored his fourth goal of the season, all of his strikes coming in league play. It’s his highest output in a single campaign.
“It was important to get these three points,” Koke said afterwards.
“We knew it would be a tough match. They’ve played a great game defensively, but in the end we were able to get the victory with my goal, but the important thing is the three points that we take home.
“The team has faith in what it does. We try to play our own game and get the job done.”
‘Georgie Resurrection’ didn’t want to look past our midweek Copa fixture when asked about next Saturday’s big game.
“We have to think about the Copa because we’re up against a very difficult opponent, and on top of that we play the first match in Valencia. It’s going to be very hard and we’ll give them everything we have.”
On avoiding a fifth booking that would have led to automatic suspension from our next league game, Koke said: “I’m very happy because I’ll be available against Barcelona.”
Juanfran wasn’t as lucky
Sadly, right-back Juanfran picked up a fifth yellow card and will be forced to sit out for ‘Tata’ Martino’s crew’s visit.
While it’s hard to single out a player that most embodies Cholo’s warrior spirit, Juanfran is up there with the best of them, and his presence will be missed when we meet head-on with the Blaugrana.
Simeone will have a big decision to make as to who will step in for the former Osasuna man, and will likely choose between the inexperienced Javi Manquillo and the untested Toby Alderweireld.
While the Belgian is a natural central defender, he has frequently featured as a right-back for his national team.
- Thibaut Courtois bagged yet another clean sheet, his 12th of the present campaign (9th in La Liga). Once again, the Belgium international hardly broke a sweat, though he was credited with three saves.
- David Villa continues to be mired in a bit of a slump, having gone goalless in four straight appearances following a stretch of seven goals in seven games. In spite of his 10 goals in all competitions in his first year at Atleti, the Asturian is really struggling to get himself involved and may be in real danger of losing his place in the starting line-up.
- Another player that failed to live up to expectations was youngster Óliver, who was handed a very rare start (his sixth of the season and second in La Liga). The 19-year-old left his bag of tricks at home and was replaced by Adrián after the break. “He came out because the team needed other characteristics, because the match came out differently than we had expected,” said Cholo.
- Though our newest Colchonero José Sosa made it into the match selection for this encounter, he did not see a minute of action. Of the attacking midfielder, Simeone said: “He’s learning what Atlético are, what his teammates aim for when they play, and his adaptation will be quicker. I imagine that in 15 days we’ll have the José Sosa that I expect.”
- While Juanfran was unable to avoid his fifth booking of the season, Arda, Filipe and Koke did and will be available for our bout versus the Culés. Tiago and Diego Costa joined the list of Colchoneros on four yellows when they were each booked against Málaga.