As Angel Correa stepped onto the pitch during Atletico’s crucial 1-0 victory over Malaga last weekend, a load of responsibility had been placed on him that might weigh any other player down. A gritty and stubborn performance from the Andalusian side had left the Rojiblancos resorting to desperate measures (look no further than Simeone’s alleged ploy to interrupt a potentially threatening counter attack for the away side) as they looked to head to the top of the La Liga table, ahead of Barcelona’s fixture vs Sporting Gijon.
Following a much-needed victory over a week ago against Athletic in which the players exhausted themselves to make sure of the three points, it was expected that Atletico may struggle against this sturdy Malaga side. It’s during these nervy and intense moments that Simeone and his coaching staff have to be able to place their trust in the substitutes to come on and make the difference. Fortunately, on a sunny Saturday evening at the Vicente Calderon, Correa stepped up and embraced the opportunity to leave his mark on this frantic title run-in.
It would be disrespectful to Correa to not mention the fact that this is something he has been doing all season for Atleti. The young Argentine has netted eight times this campaign, with five of them coming in the league. Such is Correa's impact off the bench, all 5 goals have come when the 21-year-old has made an appearance as a substitute. It's obvious that Cholo trusts in his ability to change a game and Correa has only been too happy to repay the faith his manager has shown in him with some vital goals, none more important than the winner last Saturday.
Atletico’s starting eleven has remained more or less the same in the last month with fixtures against Barcelona, Athletic Bilbao and Granada as important as each other. It brings us back to the nail-biting climax of the 2014 season when Los Colcheneros were battling for two of the biggest prizes in football, a situation they are more than content to find themselves in again. However, a season can be a long time for the modern footballer. Injuries occur, suspensions are handed out and legs grow weary or tired as the final third of the year is being played out. It’s during these moments that players like Correa have the chance to prove their qualities, both mental and physical, and ensure that Atleti are still hot on the heels of the table-topping Barcelona.
While there may only be a handful of fixtures left in the 2015/2016 season, Atletico still need their squad players to step up and be counted. Towards the end of the Bilbao win, players such as Juanfran and Griezmann were evidently tiring as they gave their all for a massive victory. It was more of the same against Malaga with the ever-present Filipe Luis and Koke the more prominent victims of a long, hard fought campaign. In the 1-0 semi-final first leg triumph over Bayern Munich, the German side seemed more dangerous in the final 20 minutes of the fixture.
Players were growing tired, unable to pressure the opponent like the fitter versions of themselves were capable of in the first half, which resulted in Bayern enjoying more space than they were afforded for the majority of the game. Atleti’s clean sheets are a magnificent achievement that shows the fight in the players is at the same level as their organization as a team. However, as defensively solid as Atletico have been, there is no arguing that the riskiest lead in this sport is a 1-0 cushion. This score line has been the final result in the team’s last three matches, and the cynic in me suggests that it’s only a matter of time before Simeone’s side let the slight lead slip.
The talent on the Rojiblancos bench isn't questionable. As Diego Godin went off injured in the victory over Bilbao, prospering young centre back Lucas stepped up in his place and was a solid performer at San Mames. Tiago's injury back in November caused much concern around the club but, yet again, a growing squad player refused to shy away from the extra weight of responsibility placed on him. Saul, arguably one of the team's best players of the season, has been ever-present in the starting eleven since Tiago was sent to the medical room. The season only gets busier in the next few weeks. With a second leg coming up against Bayern and 3 more crucial matches left in the Primera Liga title race, Atleti need their squad players to step up and ease the pressure of the starters, with Correa providing an example of the level of impact they can have on this potentially successful season.