When Diego Simeone suggested that his Atletico Madrid had gotten the toughest draw in the Europa League semi-finals, there was much rolling of eyes. Arsenal? This Arsenal? Really?
But from an Atletico point of view, perhaps there was more to the Argentine’s suggestion than a transparent effort to shift pressure off his side ahead of Thursday’s first leg.
After all, despite the brittle nature of the current Arsenal crop, they would still rank higher than the Marseille and RB Salzburg outfits – who Simeone would surely have preferred to face.
And if Arsene Wenger can get his best players on the pitch and firing, the Gunners could prove dangerous.
But that’s a big “If.” Arsenal have been so ordinary for so much of the season that Simeone’s men should be well capable of suffocating the Londoners in their usual style.
Few would disagree, surely. And yet, perhaps the Atleti manager was betraying a little disquiet about his own side’s current form.
Perhaps he’s just a touch uneasy about a squad that has looked tired of late and has ultimately hasn’t convinced across the season – failing to emerge from their Champions League group or present a concerted La Liga challenge to a transitionary Barcelona side under new management.
That Atletico are in the Europa League at all screams underperformance.
While both Simeone and Wenger may feel that the competition is beneath them, they are both involved in it for good reason – both sides weren’t good enough to contest (or in Arsenal’s case even qualify for) the Champions League.
It’s been a strange season for Las Colchoneras. In La Liga, they didn’t suffer defeat until December 22nd, and yet they’ve never looked like taking the fight to Messi and co.
Draws – six of them up to Christmas – proved debilitating in the league and created a gap they could never bridge, and the four in their Champions League group games (including two against minnows Qarabag) ultimately put paid to that campaign.
And finding the back of the opposition net has been an enduring problem. Atleti managed just 25 in their first 17 league games up to the Christmas break, scoring at a rate 1.47 a game.
Since the new year, they managed to improve somewhat, scoring at a rate of 1.75 per game to produce a return of 28 goals in 16 matches.
The improvement, most marked in the excellent form of Antoine Griezmann who had managed a paltry 5 La Liga strikes before Christmas but has scored 14 since, has much to do with the return of Diego Costa and the arrival of Vitolo.
While neither have been banging goals in with regularity, they offer more variety and nuisance value, allowing the Frenchman play further up the pitch and operate with a little more freedom.
However, Simeone’s men are still the lowest scorers by a distance in the Spanish top four, and once again its their miserly defence (they’ve conceded just 18 goals) that has driven their domestic season. That and their home form.
Las Colchoneras haven’t lost a La Liga game at the Wanda Metripolitano this term, conceding only four times! (That said, Arsenal will take some heart from Atleti’s home defeats to Chelsea in the Champions League and Sevilla in the Copa del Rey.)
On their travels, however, Godin and co have been less convincing, especially in recent fixtures. Atletico’s last away win in the league was back in February – and since hammering Lokomotiv in Moscow 5-1 in the Europa League last 16, they’ve drawn one and lost three of their last four away matches.
The latest of those defeats came in a limp, tired looking effort in the Basque country last Thursday night as they were beaten 3-0 by mid table Real Sociedad.
Simeone has called for greater focus and intensity from his men on the road. And they may well need it on Thursday night if Wenger’s announcement that he’ll be leaving Arsenal at the end of the season results in a fiery, unified, “let’s do it for Le Gaffer” type performance and atmosphere at the Emirates.
But should the Argentine’s troops respond and get their noses in front at any stage, then their enduring ability to hold on to a lead and their greater overall quality should see them through to Lyon in May.