Former Atleti manager Quique Sanchez Flores has had a productive season in his first year back in La Liga with Espanyol. Espanyol have equipped their side with La Liga veterans, who, like Atleti, are very good at getting away with fouls. And that, added with a very lenient referee, made for a scrappy affair in Barcelona, with both sides getting the benefit of the doubt on numerous occasions.
With Juanfran and Šime Vrsaljko out with injury, Atleti deployed Jose Gimenez into the backline as a replacement, having played in midfield at Leicester. The biggest boost for Atlético was a reinvigoration of its bench, with Kevin Gameiro, Nico Gaitan and Tiago all again available from the bench. Having experienced, quality players rather than academy players on the bench makes Atlético a much different prospect going deeper into matches, and Champions League ties.
In what has again become typical of Atleti this season, they thrived on the scrappiness of the match into a scoreless halftime, and took advantage as the match went on. On any given match day since the new year, Atleti players have stepped up to another level with regard to their pressing, as well as tracking back defensively. Antoine Griezmann has been in crucial positions defensively, as well as being Atleti’s best attacking threat.
The first half contained very little action, with both sides being dispossessed fairly frequently, and lots of shots off target from speculative range. Diego Simeone did not waste any time after the half, with Thomas Partay coming on for Fernando Torres, to add stability in midfield. After 20 minutes, Yannick Carrasco was withdrawn for Kevin Gameiro to make a return from injury.
In the 73’, after winning a corner, Saúl found Antoine Griezmann at the far post, and he finished first time to give Atleti the lead they had been searching for. The match was fairly balanced for the majority of the game, with both sides having chances, but again Atleti’s superior finishing and chance creation won out, in an important match to keep Sevilla three points adrift of third.
It has been nearly two months since Atleti last lost a match, and the run that they have put together has been immensely impressive, and has came at the perfect time. Though too late for the league title, Atleti will use their La Liga performances as preparation for their Champions League semi-final.
Though not a particularly nice match to watch, Atleti handled a tough opponent well away from home, as their grip on third tightens. Atleti play again in just three days, at home to Villarreal, another difficult opponent making their last top-four push. Rotation will be needed to ensure as many first teamers as possible are available for the Champions League.