- Atlético should probably put their eggs in the Champions League basket. If you watch Diego Simeone’s men on at least a semi-frequent basis, then you know that he demands 110% effort from every player on the pitch, every match. And his players always comply. The Villarreal game was no different. Even in a strange atmosphere (more on that later), Atleti managed 57% possession against the Yellow Submarine and were lively in the final third, mostly in the first half. But alas, Luciano Vietto’s 84th minute goal (after he cracked open Diego Godín like a walnut) completed Villarreal’s smash-and-grab and the champions’ first home loss in the league since May 2013. This was also Atlético’s third league loss in 15–they lost four times in the league all last year. What’s more, all three losses have come directly after a Champions League fixture. Of the club’s six post-Champions League games, they’ve only truly played well in one–an easy 2-0 home win against Deportivo.
With the club in the midst of two domestic competitions as well as the Champions League–and now seven points behind Real in the league–it stands to reason that the primary focus should shift to the latter, which resumes at the end of February with a last-16 tie against Bayer Leverkusen. Remember, the European Cup is the only trophy Cholo has not won at Atlético. He’ll never allow his players to “punt” the league–after all, they still need to finish top four in the event someone else wins Champions League, and they certainly have the squad to do it. But the Villarreal loss presents a case for putting the league title defense on the back burner.
- Antoine Griezmann needs to start. The young Frenchman, Atlético’s biggest and most expensive acquisition this summer, has found himself in and out of the XI, and has started only twice since his masterclass against Córdoba on 1 November. He played well in those two starts, with a goal against Málaga and some creative play/impressive defensive effort against Depor. But in five substitute appearances since Córdoba (not counting the Copa del Rey game vs. L’Hospitalet), Atleti have lost twice. Griezmann hasn’t played more than 27 minutes in any of those games, and he has struggled to recreate his starting form in 20-minute bursts. The club are on the prowl for another true forward to pair up top with Mario Mandžukić–someone to fill the David Villa role–and Cholo has had to occasionally mix-and-match to stay true to his trusty 4-4-2. But the Grizi-as-super-sub experiment has hit a wall for now, and regardless of the outcome of Atleti’s forward search, he’s got to return to the XI.
- Villarreal are really, really good. It isn’t often that a team can come into Estadio Vicente Calderón and take all three points–deservedly. But Marcelino’s Villarreal did just that. They had the better chances throughout the game, defended Koke’s usually-lethal corners with exceptional vigor, and eliminated any threat for an Atlético goal from the left or middle of the pitch with a physical press. As the game went along (even more so after a tired Arda Turan went off), Villarreal even managed to take away the right side. Marcelino has been without defensive stalwart Mateo Musacchio for most of the season, but no matter; the center-back pair of Gabriel Paulista-Victor Ruiz did its job. Mario wreaked havoc at right back, and Jaume Costa was fantastic on the left. Villarreal were also tough in central midfield, where they were led by captain Bruno, and the in-form Denis Cheryshev won nine aerial duels and recorded three shots on target. Finally, there was the sensational Vietto. His outrageous dribble past the infallible Godín was merely the icing on his cake; the 21 year-old, who was handed his debut by Cholo in Argentina, produced thunderous run after thunderous run and has been terrific all season (10 goals/seven assists in 22 games); Europe’s bigger clubs should soon take notice. The data table I posted a week and a half ago backs this up: they’re a top-five, potentially top-four side, with depth and talent top to bottom.
- Atlético must get used to life without the ultras. The normally-raucous Calderón had a spooky aura around it Sunday night, as Atlético missed the vocal presence of the Frente Atlético, the radical, ultra-fanatical supporters’ group that was responsible for the death of a Depor supporter a couple weeks back. Atlético sprung into action the day after the tragedy, as they condemned the events, dissociated itself from the group, banned it from the stadium and handed down lifetime expulsions for eight members involved in the incident. The club’s actions were harsh, but it was a necessary step forward on the path of eradicating ultras violence in Spanish football. It’s on the players now to get accustomed to a quieter, less festive atmosphere. This atmosphere didn’t do Atlético any favors on Sunday, but they must focus and adjust in the future.