Atletico Madrid spoke of evolution in the summer. They bought dynamic, quick attacking players and looked set to break free from Diego Simeone's defensive tactics. That hasn't particularly been the case but Atletico Madrid have been quietly building momentum and are one of Europe's best teams through the first half of the season. Last night might have been the turning point for this side as they become more than competent in every area of the field.
Last night they defeated Benfica 2-1 in Lisbon to ensure they topped their Champions League group, which has been one of their objectives from the start of the season. It wasn't easy, though, and the adversity they faced in the group stages will help them in the knockout stages of the competition.
Speculation has been rife regarding Tiago Mendes' replacement and Saul Niguez was thrust into the spotlight as the Portuguese midfielder's replacement at a crucial time in the year. He was taken off during the weekend's 2-0 defeat of Granada and was switched to a more attacking position during Atletico's first outing in the Copa del Rey against Deportiu Reus last week as he struggled to influence himself in Tiago's position. There was some growing concern that it would take more time than Atletico had at their disposal for Saul to assimilate himself into life as Tiago's replacement.
While it is becoming more clear that he will not be a like-for-like replacement for Tiago, Saul is carving out his own position on the team as he splits responsibility with Gabi while also causing problems for opposition as he attacks with verve from central midfield. The young Spaniard was excellent for his side last night and scored the opening goal with a left-footed strike that was inch perfect. The goal would change the dynamic of the game and put the ball firmly in Atletico's court as the match unravelled.
Benfica had to come out of their shell as a win was necessary to see them finish top and avoid the bigger name's in next Friday's draw.
Luciano Vietto's near-post finish from a clinical low cross by Yannick Ferreira Carrasco would give Atletico a 2-0 advantage and with their defense in such good form, it seemed there was no way back for Benfica at that point.
Benfica's Greek striker Konstantinos Mitroglou did pull one back but that was all the slack Atletico were willing to offer as they finished the game and the group stages of the Champions League on a high.
For all the talk of Atletico and their lack of attacking intent, this performance might prove to be a turning point in their season. Aside from Atletico's back four, they have a very young side and to win this game and advance to the next round of the competition without their leader Tiago Mendes will help them immensely.