Fresh off of a Copa del Rey semi-final tie which saw Atletico fall 3-2 in the aggregate to their Catalan rivals, Atletico’s 2016/17 campaign is at a crossroads.
On Sunday, the rojiblancos take on Celta Vigo needing a win to move back into the top four after Real Sociedad’s win on Friday night.
Kick-off in the Calderón is set for 20:45 CET.
Going into winter break, serious questions were raised by lackluster league performances against Espanyol (0-0 draw), Villareal (3-0 defeat) and Las Palmas (1-0 victory) which cast a shadow over the squad’s hopes to challenge for La Liga dominance.
The back four had become prone to simple mistakes and broken concentration. Griezmann struggled to get involved with no one stepping up to shoulder the goalscoring burden.
Koke had difficulty with moving the squad up the pitch and connecting with his passes. It became unclear whether the team’s movement away from a holistic full press was the mark of a tactical shift from Simeone or a sign of fatigue.
Atleti’s form during a January loaded with two Copa and League matches a week did little to answer the lingering questions about the squad as they went 4-1-3 against a series of mid-table opposition. The team looked uninspired.
Looking only at the results of the Copa del Rey semi-final matches against Barca, one might conclude that elimination from the Copa was the natural result of a struggling side.
Anyone who watched the matches, including Gabi who was sidelined from the second leg due to suspension will tell you otherwise.
Starting with Atleti’s second-half resurgence at the Calderón, the colchoneros asserted their dominance against Barca in a set of shining performances that should make AtléticoFans hopeful that Atleti has finally emerged from the shadow of poor form.
Simeone now sets his sights on Celta in a match which may indicate whether the CDR was a reclamation of “partido a partido” or simply a rise to the occasion of facing Barcelona in a knock-out stage.
When Celta and Atleti faced off this past September, los rojiblancos dismantled Eduardo Berizzo’s side netting four second half goals at the Balaidos after a fairly balanced first 45’.
This should not give Atleti any comfort as Celta has had a superb run of form since the winter break. Since December, the celestes have knocked out Valencia and Real Madrid from the Copa del Rey and have dropped points only to La Real who are currently sitting one spot ahead of Atleti in the table after their victory on Friday.
Berizzo was even recognized as manager of the month of January by La Liga Santander for his club’s efforts.
What to watch
The Savic-Lucas Partnership
Diego Godin is ineligible for Sunday’s match due to a thigh muscle injury suffered against Barca. Jose María Giménez will ultimately be joining Simeone’s bench for the first time since he suffered a groin injury at Alaves 2 weeks ago after a mid-week infection cast doubt as to whether he could make his return this match.
This forces Simeone to call on a basically untested Savic and Lucas partnership who have been facing their own challenges (Savic’s footballing in nature as he has been guilty of an increasing number of mistakes in recent matches and Lucas’ legal as he has been charged with domestic abuse for a late-night struggle with his girlfriend) to sort out an attack led by Iago Aspas.
Fernando Torres is likely to get the nod as a starter in Sunday’s match after a string of his best performances of the 2016/17 season. Torres’ brace against Leganes was decisive in los Rojiblanco’s last league match and he nearly got his name on the scoreline with a couple of good chances on goal in the first leg against Barca.
Torres, more than any other player, can answer for fans whether the XI is back to partido a partido or whether we see a dip in the team’s intensity.
Atlético match selection
Goalkeepers: Moyá, Moreira
Defenders: Filipe, Savic, Vrsaljko, Lucas, Juanfran, Giménez
Midfielders: Koke, Saúl, Gabi, Carrasco, Thomas, Gaitán
Forwards: Griezmann, Torres, Correa, Gameiro