Can Rodri lead Atletico to Diego Simeone's first La Liga win over Barca
Photo: Roberto, CC BY-SA 4.0
Entering the weekend, La Liga was a tight affair, the top four teams separated by a solitary point. Two of the four go head-to-head on Saturday. Reigning champions, Barcelona invade the capital to take on Atletico Madrid.
It's not El Clasico but Atleti/Barca games have been tense in recent times. Only two of the last 21 were decided by more than one goal. The Blaugrana usually better the Rojiblancos in La Liga. In charge since 2011, Diego Simeone hasn't recorded a league win against the Cules but has topped them twice in the Champions League.
Third in the league, Atleti are in reasonable form. Like all of the big hitters, they've had good days and bad this season. Among their best, most consistent performers is 22-year-old summer signing, Rodri.
Born in Madrid, he began his career with Los Colchoneros but was released as a teenager in 2013, deemed too weak to suit the club. Soon after, he signed for Villarreal. He made over 120 appearances for the Yellow Submarine's first and second teams. He debuted for the B team in February 2015 and the senior team in December of the same year. Between those two dates, he was a member of the Spain U19 side that won the Euros. Other key performers in that team included Dani Ceballos, Borja Mayoral and Marco Asensio.
On the strength of 80+ senior appearances, he was called up to the national team for the first time in March, debuting in a friendly against Germany. Atletico were convinced they made a mistake in letting him go and paid €20 million plus a potential €5 million in add-ons to bring him back and introduce him to the Wanda Metropolitano.
A self-confessed massive fan of Zinedine Zidane as a youngster, Rodri missed his chance to take the pitch against his hero but won his first silverware with Atletico in the Madrid derby UEFA Super Cup in Tallinn this summer. He played 71 minutes in the 4-2 victory. Despite that, he struggled for a place, spending three of his first six games on the bench. In the three games he did play, he impressed. Consequently, he's started every league game since.
Hard-working midfielders are a Simeone staple. Tiago Mendes and Gabi had their time. With both moved on, Rodri looks absolutely perfect to play midfield in Simeone's team. He's a big unit at 6' 3", can play the defensive role to perfection but is equally adept with the ball at his feet.
Rodri has more than one string on his bow. Ranked fifth in La Liga with 3.3 tackles per game, he also completes passes at a 91.8% rate, 10th best in the division. Of the nine players who have a better pass completion percentage, only four have attempted more passes. Pundits liken his playing style to Barcelona and Spain star, Sergio Busquets. There are similarities but he has a long way to go to reach "Peekaboo's" level.
When Atletico and Barcelona meet on Saturday, there will be more high-profile players on the pitch but sometimes it's the ones who don't score that make the difference. When the youngster plays, Atleti are a better team. He provides defensive cover while linking the defence to the attack. Every team needs such a player. Still just 22, Rodri is fast becoming one of the best at the position.