While the rest of the universe was focused on El Clásico, Atlético had their sights set on first place.
Atleti supporters suffered through the endless Barcelona and Real Madrid fodder all week long, but, in the end, they were rewarded handsomely.
With their 2-0 victory on the road at Betis — their third straight shutout and 10th win away from home in La Liga — los Rojiblancos found themselves at the pinnacle of the Primera División.
The match got underway under somber circumstances, with a minute of silence being held prior to kick-off in honour of Spain’s first post-Franco prime minister, Adolfo Suárez, who passed away in Madrid on Sunday.
Things got heated fairly quickly however, with both sides matching each other in intensity and combativeness.
But, what was missing were clear goal scoring opportunities, though Atleti had a chance to take the lead in the opening 45 minutes when Diego Costa smashed home a left-footed shot that was incorrectly voided because of an inexistent offside.
The second half got off to a roaring start.
The men in red and white seemed determined to get ahead, but it was the home club’s Juankar (feel free to give in to your inner teenager and chuckle) who narrowly missed out on giving his team the edge when his shot hit the post.
That was about it for the Andalusians. Shortly thereafter, Verdiblanco striker Braian Rodríguez foolishly earned a second yellow and was given his marching orders, spelling doom for the beleaguered Béticos.
Three minutes later, Gabi fired off what would prove to be the match-winner, a spectacular goal that was followed up by a lovely team effort finished off by Diego Costa.
With three more points in the bag and level at 70 with Real Madrid, it was time to back Messi and company in their visit to the Santiago Bernabéu.
It turned out to be a classic Sunday indeed. The Culés ended up coming from behind twice to defeat our eternal rivals, granting us the power to control our own fate from here on out, though it will undoubtedly take a 300-like effort.
It’s pretty simple. All we have to do is win every remaining game on the schedule to retain the throne–starting with our encounter versus Granada on Wednesday at the Vicente Calderón.
Fellow Colchonero, don’t feel weird when you’ve checked the league standings for the 76th time on Monday.
You are not alone.
Post-game notes and quotes:
Four more games to go before ‘El Cholo’ talks of title chances
“The match was at a deadlock; tough,” Atleti boss Diego Simeone said afterwards.
“Ever since [Gabriel] Calderón arrived, Betis have gained aggressiveness.”
The Rojiblanco commander-in-chief continued: “I’m happy about the game. It cost us a lot of work in the first half, but since the start of the second half, we improved.
“We began getting ourselves into it and taking the match where we wanted: to Gabi’s goal and then the dismissal. Betis came into this one after a huge effort [on Thursday], and we took advantage of it.”
‘Cholo’ admitted that, “after the red card, logically, it was another game”, before offering the Verdiblancos some praise.
“Betis never gave in to defeat. That showed a lot of honour given their situation.”
Simeone stayed true to his word that he would not speak of his men’s title chances until there are only five fixtures left on the calendar.
Gabi blasts off again
There’s no doubt that memories of the missile Gabi launched at Real Madrid earlier this month still brings feelings of sheer bliss to Rojiblancos.
The Atleti captain banged in another long-distance strike on Sunday to pave the way to victory for our warriors in red and white.
The goal was the 30-year-old midfielder’s third of the season — all three scored in league play — and second against Betis.
“The dismissal was decisive,” the Atlético youth academy product told reporters.
“The team played a lot better starting at that point and, in the end, we’ve achieved a deserved victory.”
“We feel very powerful,” Gabi said.
“More and more so each day.”
The Beast keeps his cool and adds to his tally
It really should’ve been Diego Costa opening up the scoring, but referee Estrada Fernández called back the Spain international’s wonderful shot in the first half.
Every one of Costa’s outings is a personal challenge for the lethal striker.
Refs disrespect him. Opposing fans and players abhor him.
The Beast of the Manzanares’ adventure on Sunday at the Benito Villamarín was no different, particularly considering that Betis centre-back Paulão was clearly tasked with the job of driving him mad.
This week’s winner of the Xabi Alonso award, Paulão got away with a series of cynical challenges, including a dastardly kick to Costa’s nether regions.
Our super striker got the last laugh though — possibly a high-pitched one — when he snuck past his aggressor to score his 23rd league goal and 31st overall of the campaign.
As my illustrious colleague Derek Maaijen pointed out in his match report, Costa has scored the last four times we have faced off against Betis and, all four of his goals were scored between the 55th and 65th minute.
With at least 11 games left to play in all competitions, the Lagarto-born hitman has a chance to surpass Falcao’s incredible total of 36 goals in a single season (2011-12).
Godín, along with the Rojiblanco faithful, was pulling for Barça in the Clásico
“We did our job in a hard match,” member of Spain’s best defence Diego Godín said.
“We came out with a positive result and leave here having gotten our homework done.”
The Uruguayan continued: “We can’t talk about winning La Liga because there are a lot of matches left, but we will battle until the end.
“Now, we have to focus on Granada, enjoy the victory, watch Madrid versus Barcelona and, beginning tomorrow, we will start to work to try to win the next game at the Calderón.
“I love to watch football and [the Clásico] is a nice game to watch. Hopefully Barça can win it so that we can keep fighting for the league.”
- Thibaut Courtois bagged his 50th career clean sheet in La Liga, having shutout our foes in almost half of his 102 appearances. As is very often the case, the Belgian idol didn’t have to do much to earn his 21st clean sheet in the present term (15th in La Liga), but we all know that he is more than ready and capable when he is needed. Thibaut was probably delighted at the Bernabéu’s goalfest, which places him in an even better position to land the Zamora trophy for the second year running.
- Arda put in yet another sublime shift, and was credited with his 5th assist of the season (1 more than his total from the previous campaign), simply by dealing a pass to Gabi that our skipper then put all his might into.
- Koke added his team-leading 15th assist this season (11th in La Liga; 1 less than category leader Cesc Fábregas) in splendid fashion, finding Costa with the fluff of his hair in the 64th minute.
- The moment we announced Filipe Luís’ remarkable streak of 16 games without seeing yellow in last week’s Aftermath, we of course set off a chain of events that directly led to the left-back’s fifth booking on Sunday. Filipe will not be able to take part on Wednesday when we host Granada.
- Currently, no Atlético player is in danger of suspension.