As José Giménez thumped home the header that brought Atlético Madrid level at Girona on Saturday, he peeled away in celebration, kissing the new, controversial club badge as he did. And thus, a humid, frustration-filled evening at Montilivi amazingly became one of renewed optimism and, one may say, hope.
Atlético may or may not have deserved a draw against the Liga Santander debutants — they did not, if you ask me — but that is, somehow, what happened. Giménez and Ángel Correa canceled out Cristhian Stuani’s first half brace, and Atleti survived Antoine Griezmann’s controversial red card to walk away with a point.
Every concern Atlético fans could have about the team came to life over a very troubling opening half hour. On 22 minutes, Stuani finished off a lovely Girona attacking move by turning in an Álex Granell cross after Juanfran failed to make a clearance. Then, just three minutes later, Giménez hit a headed clearance straight into the ex-Espanyol forward’s path, and he made no mistake. Atlético saw nothing but red and white shirts as they tried to break down an organized defense and could have shut things down entirely after Griezmann was sent off for simulation and protesting said simulation, but Correa scored a veritable golazo before Giménez secured the draw.
Diego Simeone did not come into the league opener with all his horses in their stables. Diego Godín had to complete a three-game suspension he received in May, and Thomas Partey was suspended as well. Filipe Luís was not available after he picked up a foot injury in training, which meant Lucas Hernández would be the left back. Simeone elected to roll out a 4-4-2/4-3-3 hybrid with Gabi, Koke and Saúl Ñíguez in midfield and Yannick Carrasco occasionally joining Griezmann and Fernando Torres up top.
But Pablo Machín’s Girona ripped apart this game plan relatively quickly. Atlético allowed an enthusiastic, energetic Girona to have all too much of the ball in the opening 20 minutes. Juanfran — who had quite the mare — failed to make a routine clearance from a set piece and kept an attack alive. The ball pinged around the edge of the box before Granell swung in a cross that Stefan Savić really should have headed away but landed on Stuani’s head for the opener. A corner three minutes later saw Giménez make a powerful headed clearance...straight to Stuani to hit past Jan Oblak.
The roof was caving in quickly and Atlético seemed unable to muster any urgency to overcome it, finishing the first half with just one shot on target. Although Simeone’s side began brightly in the second half, they struggled to find openings in the Girona defense. Matters went from bad to worse when Griezmann was taken down by Gorka Iraizoz in the box but shown a yellow card for diving. A few choice curse words later, referee Juan Martínez Munuera produced a second yellow, and the Frenchman was issued his marching orders for the first time in his career.
Oddly, though, Griezmann’s red seemed to ignite Atleti. Now playing in a 3-4-2-type thing, Correa created his side’s first goal from nothing; he picked up the ball near midfield, charged past the defense and stuck a thunderbolt past Gorka with a dozen minutes to go. After Nico Gaitán and Luciano Vietto saw chances go begging, Correa won a free kick from around 28 yards. Koke stepped up, lofted the ball in and Giménez did the rest, as he took advantage of an over-eager Gorka to head past him for the equalizer. Oblak’s stunning left-handed save on Olarenwaju Kayode in stoppage time clinched a point for the mattress makers.
Lineups: Girona - Iraizoz; Maffeo, Espinosa, Muniesa, Alcalá, Aday (Planas, 71’); Borja García, Granell, Pons; Portu (Kayode, 84’), Stuani
Atlético - Oblak; Juanfran (Correa, 58’), Savić, Giménez, Lucas; Gabi (Gaitán, 69’), Saúl, Koke, Carrasco; Griezmann (red card, 67’), Torres (Vietto, 73’)
Goals: Girona - Stuani 22’, 25’
Atlético - Correa 78’, Giménez 85’