Atletico Madrid well placed to challenge with praiseworthy efficiency
As the La Liga season approaches the final stage, Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid is steadily finding its feet in the La Liga title race.
Following a disappointing goalless draw home to sub-par Real Madrid in November Los Colchoneros were just fourth in the league despite remaining unbeaten. Frustratingly that stalemate was Atleti’s sixth of the campaign, or 50% of their results.
Since that cold evening in Madrid Simeone’s men have dropped just four points from 33, drawing once with Girona, losing narrowly to Espanyol. Disheartening delays in Estadio Wanda Metropolitano’s construction and a summer transfer ban hindered the Rojiblancos in 2017. A gradual adaption to their new home, combined with Diego Costa and Vitolo's late arrivals have contributed to a strong turn-around.
With just 15 league contests remaining and a plausible Europa League success, Atletico been rejuvenated at the ideal time. Their abject Champions League and Copa del Rey failures leave them fighting for honours on just two fronts. It’s crucial their electric form continues.
That task won’t be without challenge. Liga trips to Sevilla, Barcelona, Villarreal, and Real Madrid await. The Europa League is filled with strong sides. Sporting Lisbon. Marseille. Arsenal. Dortmund. Leipzig. Milan. Napoli. Lyon or Villareal. Lazio. There's a better than 50% chance they'll draw one from that group if they progress to the Round of 16 by defeating Copenhagen. That said, recent results indicate Atleti could sustain a Liga challenge despite bookmakers pushing them out as far as 28/1 for glory.
Barcelona’s four points dropped against Espanyol and Getafe undoubtedly offer Simeone hope for recalling his 2014 success.
The Rojiblancos' surge is mostly down to getting the basics right. While Atletico were by no means inept defensively at any point this campaign, its tight, aggressive back four has reverted to the immovable force fans expect and opponents dread.
In his last nine league contests, only two goals have passed the stalwart Jan Oblak. Rock solid defensive work from Diego Godin, Lucas Hernandez, and Filipe Luis in front of their keeper remains consistent. The unit's cohesion is at its peak. Further afield, Gabi and Saul Niguez have provided exceptional cover for the backline. Both deserve huge credit.
Pressure going forward mostly stems from the attacking line growing in confidence and finally taking its chances. Goals from a host of players including Antoine Griezmann, Angel Correa, Kevin Gameiro and Fernando Torres have crucially stolen three points in recent matches.
Atletico possess the seventh worst shots on goal tally in the division. It only hits the target 4.3 times on average. The side it is chasing, Ernesto Valverde’s Barcelona, is firing 15.4 shots per 90 with 7.3 on target. It's little wonder the Blaugrana are coasting and Diego Simeone's squad fell so far behind despite its own extended unbeaten start.
Creative sparks Koke, Yannick Carrasco, and Angel Correa must build upon hit-and-miss beginnings while facing competition from Spanish international Vitolo. Most importantly, it’s expected the relationship between the flashy Antoine Griezmann and flash-tempered Diego Costa will develop into a partnership as complementary and lethal as the latter's was with Eden Hazard at Stamford Bridge.
Given Simeone's style, it's unlikely the shot statistics will rise significantly. Change must arrive from how many clear-cut chances his attack force creates and finishes, particularly in big games.
Grievances as featured in the aforementioned Real Madrid encounter, combined with points thrown away against Chelsea, Roma, and Qarabag in the Champions League, should define the difference between success and failure. With confidence rising and unity emerging once more, Atletico Madrid’s season cannot be considered finished by any stretch.