ATM XI: Oblak, Vrsaljko, Savic, Godín, Filipe Luis, Thomas (Lucas 93’), Gabi, Saúl, Koke, Gameiro (Torres 76’), Correa (Giménez 61’).
BET XI: Adan, Barragan (Julio Gracia 75’), Mandi, Feddal, Durmisi, Guardado (Camarasa 66’), Joaquin, Fabián (Aitor 88’), Boudebouz, Herrera, León.
After the disappointment of Champions League elimination, Atlético Madrid travelled to the Estadio Benito Villamarín to face a Real Betis side that impressed to start the season but has tailed off significantly in recent weeks. Betis had not won since October, so this was a good chance for Atlético to grab three points at a ground where they hadn’t lost since 2006.
The match got off to a rough start for Atlético, as new Betis signing Ryad Boudebouz kicked the inside of Gabi’s foot with a very high boot and was booked, which incensed Quique Setién. It was a foul, and Gabi seemed genuinely hurt, but he was able to play on. Atleti struggled mightily to gain any sort of hold on the match early on, with Betis piling on the pressure. Their best chance came 22 minutes in after a free kick that Šime Vrsaljko gave away, but Antonio Barragán could not reach a cross at the back post.
Atlético could not generate any opportunities, failing time and again to link the defense with attack, Koke and Saúl proving again that they are not wingers — great players though they are. Ángel Correa was the better of the two attackers, as Kévin Gameiro was virtually invisible in the first half.
Correa nearly gave away a penalty just before the half hour mark when he pushed Cristian Tello in the box. But the missed opportunity benefitted Atleti, as they went ahead almost immediately after. Vrsaljko put in a fantastic cross that Gameiro missed but a sliding Saúl tucked home. It was a lovely goal that los colchoneros did not deserve in the slightest, but that’s exactly the kind of thing a good Diego Simeone side does. Correa could have doubled the lead just moments afterwards when he stole a march in on the Betis defense only to be foiled by Antonio Adán.
From that point on, Atlético looked much better in the attacking phase, creating several chances on the break, with Koke at the heart of a lot of these good things. The final ball was missing, but the build up looked good. At halftime, Atleti could feel fortunate to be ahead, but certainly pleased with how they had played after the goal was scored. As pointed out by the excellent Mr. Chip, in 37 competitive matches where Saúl has scored, his team has not lost, whether that’s Atleti, Atleti B or Spain.
The second half saw Betis continue to apply pressure, while Simeone’s men were happy to sit back and defend their lead. One of the key moments in the second half was Jan Oblak’s sensational save from Tello’s effort from outside the area. On 61 minutes, Simeone made his first change, bringing on José Giménez for Correa, so clearly Atleti were pleased to hold onto the lead. This meant Atleti moved to a three center-back formation, which also had the added benefit of giving the back line more pace than before.
There was little attacking threat from Atlético, if any, in the second half but that by design. Fernando Torres entered for Gameiro to provide a bit more of a focal point. Cholo’s changes completely neutralized Betis, who struggled to put any moves together despite having 74 percent possession.
It was not pretty, and it was certainly not exciting, but the strategy was extremely effective. Atleti just need to keep pace with Barcelona and Valencia and keep Real Madrid as far back as humanly possible. These were three well-earned points; Betis looked better than in recent weeks, but they could not break down a stubborn defense that continues to look better and better. The mattress makers remain unbeaten in LaLiga and have gone a whole year without losing away from home.