ATM XI: Oblak, Juanfran, Giménez, Lucas, Filipe Luís (Godín 77’), Thomas, Rodri (Correa 46’), Koke, Saúl, Griezmann, Kalinić (Lemar 46’)
VIL XI: Asenjo, Mario Gaspar, González, Funes Mori, Costa, Iturra (Bacca 64’; Ekambi 77’), Trigueros, Cazorla, Fornals, Pedraza (Caseres 73’), Moreno
At last club football has returned from yet another dreary international break, and LaLiga’s landscape seems to have gone a bit weird. Going into Saturday’s match, Alavés were top of the league and Real Madrid had just lost at home to Levante. So despite Atlético Madrid’s slow start to the season, in some ways they had gotten away with it through similar failings from the other members of the Big Three.
With injuries and lengthy travel for internationals weighing on the squad, Diego Simeone opted for the young center back partnership of Lucas and José Giménez, flanked by veteran fullbacks Juanfran and Filipe Luís. Rodri returned to take on his former club alongside Thomas Partey in a more defensive midfield. However, Villarreal routinely found first half space in the final third due to Atlético’s attack getting so little service from the wings. The midfield was forced to push forward which left space to exploit for the hosts’ talented midfield.
The first true opportunity Atlético created came on 16 minutes — the result of a great run by Filipe that led to an appeal for handball, which was briefly VAR’d and turned down. Atleti still suffered defensively but were tighter than in the opening minutes. Josema did a great job on a couple occasions to break up play in front of his box. Saúl Ñíguez had his first good opportunity on 30 minutes with a headed chance that Sergio Asenjo almost spilled.
(A moment that shouldn’t be forgotten is Thomas’ backheeled nutmeg pass to Saúl, which unfortunately did not result in a goal but was a sensational piece of skill anyway.)
Atlético’s corners continued to be mostly terrible, so despite a large number of set pieces most were wasted. Koke was taken off corners about midway through the first half, with Antoine Griezmann taking out-swinging corners. Atleti went into halftime in a stalemate, with some hard feelings about poor refereeing the main event to that point.
Simeone felt the need to make drastic change at halftime, and he used two subs to bring in Thomas Lemar and Àngel Correa. Perhaps the most surprising thing was that Rodri then came off when it seemed certain it should be Koke or maybe Thomas.
It required an unlikely source for Atlético, but break through they did on 51 minutes when Filipe headed Atleti into the lead. With the offensive changes made, the mattress makers then had to stick to it. Jan Oblak had to make a great stop on 57’ when Gerard Moreno somehow got one-on-one — the Slovene somehow trapped the ball in his legs.
Villarreal did get their equalizer though less than 10 minutes later. Mario Gaspar lashed home a deflected shot after some poor defending, and then Oblak had to stand on his head. Carlos Bacca went through one-on-one, but Oblak stretched a long arm to deny the Colombian.
(Rather unfortunately, Bacca injured himself trying to do a rabona cross and had to be substituted just ten minutes after coming on.)
Ultimately though, Atlético would not get over the line and settled for a draw at the Ceramic Stadium. They simply did not create enough chances to warrant the victory, Lemar missed a close header on 88 minutes that could have won it, but that was the one real opportunity after the hour mark. This would have been a great day to move further clear of Madrid and Barcelona, but a quality Villarreal side would not have it.