It wasn’t pretty, but it rarely is with Atletico in the Champions League. Away days, especially, seem to bring out the nitty gritty performances that can so often help define a team’s character as they progress through the year. An atmosphere as lively and loud as Philips Stadion, the setting of tonight’s crucial 1-0 victory, can be daunting. Most of all, it requires focus, a lack of sloppy play and a bit of luck. Fortunately for Atleti, all three were apparent on Tuesday night.
Diego Simeone made three changes from the team that started in the 4-0 win at Celta Vigo at the weekend as Kevin Gameiro, Jose Gimenez and Nico Gaitan replaced Fernando Torres, Yannick Carrasco and Stefan Savic in the starting eleven. All three players that came in after sitting on the bench at the weekend were under pressure to make an impression. Gaitan has yet to win Simeone’s trust as he’s yet to start a league game while Gameiro’s lack of goals is causing concern amongst supporters already. Gimenez, meanwhile, has been unable to win back the starting position he lost last April.
The squad available at Cholo’s disposal was apparent with the changes made. All three players are supremely talented, and on their night, can be unstoppable. This wasn’t one of those nights. Gaitan was sloppy and uninspiring in possession before he was withdrawn at the 60-minute mark for Tiago. Gameiro linked up well with his fellow Frenchman, Antoine Griezmann, in attack but a finishing touch was still lacking. Gimenez may have been unlucky to give away a penalty as replays show there was minimal contact but the lunge came after he had gotten beat easily on the turn by Luciano Narsingh.
All in all, it was a night where team effort was needed from Atletico. A requirement they have only been too familiar with in their Champions League outings. No player shined or stood out, but they didn’t need to. The defense, despite being shaky in the first half hour or so, held together for a solid second half while the midfield and attackers pushed on in search for a second goal. Saul embraced his central role, while Koke carried on from his excellent performance at the weekend with another satisfying display. Griezmann had few magic moments that Atleti are used to, however, the striker still came searching for the ball deep in midfield and continuously sprayed it out wide to help create opportunities for his side.
Referee Martin Atkinson has seen better nights. PSV’s disallowed goal in the first half came from an apparent push on Filipe Luis but replays failed to show any crime committed before Luuk de Jong seemed to have given the home team the lead. Shortly afterwards, Saúl scored a stunning left-footed shot to silence the crowd, following a corner kick that brought controversy with it. PSV’s Davy Propper stayed down after a clash of heads with Gimenez, and despite the obvious head injury on the pitch, Atkinson waved play on before Saúl’s delightful finish. A strong appeal for a Diego Godin handball in the second half capped off a frustrating night for the hosts, as Atleti were relieved to come away with all three points.
Chances are, alas, the fortuitous decisions will even itself out over the course of the campaign. For Atletico, however, a victory in the Netherlands affords some breathing space. Dropped points would have caused panic, considering that two games versus Bayern Munich and a tricky trip to Russia awaits Simeone’s side. Already holding an advantage over PSV, with the return fixture being played at the Vicente Calderon, is a huge boost to the side’s chances of progressing to the knockout stages. It may have been an ugly, drab win marred by controversy. But it’s still a win.