Atletico Madrid may rue missed opportunities in La Liga title hunt

Seasons where Barcelona and Real Madrid are both below par are as rare as hen’s teeth – but when they come, the likes of Atletico Madrid must be ready to capitalise.

But in this the most surprising and unpredictable starts to a La Liga season, where both the champions of Spain and the champions of Europe are noticeably out of sorts, there’s already a feeling that Diego Simeone and his men may be set to pass up on a massive opportunity.

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Saturday night’s draw with the Ernesto Valverde’s Blaugranas served to underline the point. Earlier in the day, Real Madrid fell to their fifth defeat of the season at the feet of little Eibar, a 3-0 result that marked a shuddering end to Santiago Solari’s honeymoon period as manager of Los Merengues.

But amazingly, despite the shambolic nature of their season, they trailed their city rivals by only three points and league leaders Barca by just one more as both prepared to kick off at a packed Wanda Metropolitano.

By the final whistle, the gap had only increased by one.

In truth, its unlikely that Real will improve sufficiently over the rest of the season to punish their two main rivals.

But the fact that Bale and co haven’t already been put well and truly to bed is a testament to the struggles of Los Rojiblancos and Barca.

In terms of excitement, Saturday evening’s clash was effectively reduced to a 16-minute affair. The 78 minutes that preceded Diego Costa’s first league goal since February was entirely forgettable.

Although there was much to ponder.

The pattern had been familiar. Atleti sat deep, narrow and compact, content to allow the visitors possession, to present the usual almost impermeable barrier and to try strike on the break or take advantage from a set piece.

Barcelona prodded and probed, but never tested Oblak, while at the other end, their own goal stood unthreatened.

There were few efforts of note off target let alone any that troubled the keepers.

Watching what looked a certain scoreless draw unfold, one wondered about the state of mind of the home fans.

Were there any mutterings of discontent? Did they doubt Simeone’s approach? Could they dare to do so given all he has done to make them one of the most feared club’s in the game?

And yet, wasn’t their cause for doubt or at least annoyance? After all, Atleti are no longer underdogs. Not with the squad they have amassed and the money they have spent.

And surely not in a season where Barca are brittle and Real are in disarray?

The champions, despite being top of the table, arrived having already lost twice this season and conceded a whopping 18 goals.

Their 24-point tally from a possible 36 paled in comparison to the 34 they had amassed this time last season – a run of games that had seen their defence breached on just four occasions.

This term they have not exerted their usual levels of control. Gerard Pique has been poor at the back, Samuel Umtiti has missed a large chunk of the season and the conspicuous gap between defence and midfield has been aggressively exposed by the likes of Real Betis, Girona and Leganes.

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But Atleti treated them as if they were the Barcelona of old rather than the fragile side we’ve become familiar with this season. In this, Simeone must stand indicted.

Then suddenly Costa headed home from Griezmann’s corner, once again exposing Barca’s weakness at set pieces – and how goals change perceptions and not just matches.

Suddenly, there was thought of vindication for Simeone. Of Atletico Madrid doing what Atletico Madrid do best. That no one would remember how passive they had been for so long. How unwilling they had been to commit men forward.

How the lack of support for the frontmen went a long way to explaining why this was only their 17th goal of the season – less than what Messi and Suarez have managed combined.

But as I say, goals change games, change perceptions. And Ousmane Dembele’s 90th minute equaliser flipped them again and provided cause for doubt.

Another draw, Atleti’s sixth in 13 La Liga fixtures, and another opportunity missed.

And if there was any certainty to be drawn from this most uncertain of La Liga seasons, it was the conclusion that El Cholo and his men will need to do much more if this isn’t to be the story of their season.

Author Details

Paul Little

Freelance football columnist. European Football with the Irish Daily Star. Hold the Back Page podcast regular. Family and Renaissance Man. Dublin born, Wicklow resident.

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