‘Ya caerá el Atleti’ (Now Atleti will fall) is a phrase that has been used repeatedly this season, as surely it was only a matter of time.
In this two-team league of ours, nobody thought unfancied Atlético would make it to May as league leaders. Sooner or later they would slip and hand the momentum back to Real Madrid and Barcelona, before slowly fading away…
Or maybe not.
Diego Simeone and his team once again overcame a huge hurdle in their pursuit of the most improbable of league titles, grinding out a massive 1-0 win against Valencia on Sunday afternoon.
In a ground where they hadn’t won a La Liga game for over 11 years, sandwiched between a Champions League semi-final, this was the game in which many tipped the dream to end.
However, the red and whites defied the odds once more by doing what they have done all season. Atleti were solid at the back, decisive on the counter, strong in midfield and focused, determined and committed from start. It was the perfect recipe for league win number 28 of this incredible season.
Raúl García was the match-winner with a goal that summed up the performance of both himself and team, cleverly nodding a floated pass from Gabi over an opposition defender and goalkeeper, bouncing in off the post.
Few would have seen such a hopeful ball forward as a goal-scoring opportunity, but the Navarrese front man has earned a reputation for feeding on such chances, and made Valencia pay for the fourth consecutive match this season. He wanted it more, and reaped the rewards.
The home side, fresh off the back of a Europa League semi-final themselves, were allowed to come forward and ask questions in the second half, but Atleti had the answers and defended their lead in style. In truth, they probably should have added to it had Diego Costa remembered his shooting boots.
Despite the win though, a lot of work is still to be done. Barcelona came from behind to get all three points at Villarreal, and with Real Madrid having a game in hand, any slip now could well be critical.
Three finals remain, starting back on the east coast at Levante next week. For Cholo, that must take a back seat – as we have the small matter of Chelsea and a place in the Champions League final to play for.
Post-game notes and quotes:
Cholo the Cumpleañero applauds team effort
Under extreme pressure and physical demand, most managers would be rolling out the excuses. Simeone however, 44 on Monday, strives for the very best, and continues to challenge his team.
“We played today against a major rival, a very important team who gave us a serious game, but we needed the win and we got it,” he told the press.
“The team had the attitude to win the game in every moment, and we had the chances to finish it in the second half. Even with the uncertainty of just a one goal lead, we showed great resolve.”
The Argentine went on to praise the thousands of travelling Atléticos who helped turn the Mestalla red and white, making sure to include the fans in their team’s success and underline their importance.
“From below we could see the reflection of our colours in the stands. Seeing the people and the flags in the crowd really helps and makes us feel a great pride,”
“Every game is very tough, and we can’t afford to relax for a single day. Now the focus is on Chelsea, a very powerful team who we know can cause us a lot of problems.” he finished.
Matchwinner Raúl heads home 17th of the season
As cliché as it may be, Raúl García’s transition from zero to hero under Simeone has been a sight to behold, this season in particular.
Once a perennial victim of the Calderón boo-boys, the 27 year-old has been given a new lease of life since returning from a loan spell at Osasuna two years ago, and has become one of the our most valuable players.
“The most important thing for me is the team’s result,” he said. “What we’re doing is down to sacrifice and humility. We are a collective, we always give our all, and that’s why we are where we are.”
“Valencia came out to win and made it difficult, and we expect the same on Wednesday. We are competing at the highest level, but hopefully we can make another important step both for ourselves and the history of the club.”
“The support of our people is important. Every match we play has something at stake and they are always there supporting us, it is as much of a joy for them as it is to us.” he concluded.
Pizzi laments side’s naivety
“Falling into Atlético’s trap” was how Valencia manager Juan Antonio Pizzi described Sunday’s match.
Time after time it seems to happen. Teams think they have the beating of Simeone’s men, but still end up on the losing side. Los Che started well and had the better of the first half, but went into the break trailing and were ultimately unable to find a route back into the match.
“The game developed as I expected. I am very critical of myself and my players, but considering the strengths of our opponent, we played into their hands,” he said in his post-match press conference.
“We had control for the most part, but the reality is that they were stronger, faster and won legitimately.”
“There are teams who are comfortable playing with a certain style and do so with great dedication. Atlético are one of those.”
– A day after the club’s 111th birthday, a number of new records were set. 88 points in La Liga beats the total of 87 set in the 1995-96 doblete season, despite the current team having played seven matches fewer. I don’t think you’ll need telling how many more are required…
– 20 clean sheets is also more than we ever managed in a single season. It was also the first time in 25 that Valencia have failed to score in the Mestalla, and is our 8th shut-out in 9 matches.
– The win was our ninth in La Liga on the bounce. If there were a record for the amount of club record’s broken in a single season, we would probably have broken that as well.
– Juanfran‘s late dismissal means he will miss next Sunday’s final at Levante. It was our first direct red card of the season, and second in total after Filipe back in October at Granada.
– Playing for a place at the World Cup and a contract extension, David Villa is now 12 games without a goal. Despite getting a warm reception back at his old club, this is a worrying run of form for the veteran frontman.
– Before the game, both team’s paid tribute to Villa’s manager at Barcelona last season, Tito Vilanova, who tragically died of throat cancer on Friday afternoon. Rest in peace.