Not only did Atlético Madrid lose any hope of rallying for a stunning league title, but they effectively let two teams back into the race for second in a shocking collapse at Villarreal on Sunday night.
Atlético’s winless run at La Cerámica extended to three years after substitute Enes Ünal scored two goals inside the final 10 minutes to hand the hosts a 2-1 win. It was a deserved win too, just reward for an excellent second half out of Javi Calleja’s men. Antoine Griezmann’s controversial first half penalty kept Atleti ahead for more than an hour, but a lack of attacking bite and positive changes from Calleja swung the match back to Villarreal.
In a surprising shift from most matches this season — particularly away from home against big sides — Atlético found space and attacked from the off. Diego Costa’s hold-up play was crucial in the early going as he helped Atlético keep possession and generate danger against a suspect Villarreal defense. Atleti were flying but lacked the precision needed to really challenge a goalkeeper of Sergio Asenjo’s quality.
That changed on 18 minutes when Griezmann went down in the box under very little contact. The Frenchman — already on a yellow card for a tough tackle — could have been given his marching orders for simulation, but referee Fernández Borbalán instead awarded a penalty for a foul on Jaume Costa. Despite los amarillos’ protests, Griezmann stepped up and sent Asenjo the wrong way to put Atlético 1-0 up.
The hosts soon began to work some openings but failed to register any clear chances, while Atleti were pretty comfortable with the chippy, intense nature of the first 45 minutes. Simeone’s men had less than 40 percent possession at the half but went in with a deserved lead.
The second half resembled much more closely the first halves we have seen Atlético produce this season. Los colchoneros sagged off and seemed content to sit back and defend their way to a 1-0 win — indeed, Atleti managed just three second half shots and none in the final 20 minutes. Vitolo’s entrance led to a brief period of positivity, but Gabi’s entrance in place of Griezmann invited more and more pressure. They would be made to pay for their lack of impetus by Calleja’s sharp substitutions.
One of Calleja’s changes in particular would stand out as the one who scored Villarreal’s well-timed equalizer and eventually grabbed the winner. As in the first meeting between the teams in October, the Yellow Submarine won a corner which Atlético failed to clear. The ball came out to center back Álvaro, who swung in a tasty cross that Ünal rose highest to meet and head in beyond Oblak.
Simeone threw on Fernando Torres in search of a dramatic winner, but it would be Ünal nabbing it instead. Atlético could not respond to chaos from a Samu Castillejo free kick and Daniele Bonera slid the ball to an unmarked Ünal to tap in, meaning Atleti would lose on a goal inside the final five minutes for the fourth time this season (Chelsea, Espanyol and Sevilla in the Copa del Rey the others).
The fireworks wouldn’t end there, though. Vitolo’s positive night was dampened by a strange 93rd minute red card for bundling over Sansone, and Diego Costa saw yellow for protesting that decision. But there could be no protesting that on the strength of their second half ascent, the Yellow Submarine earned this win, and Atlético will have to lick their wounds and go again after the international break, now just four points ahead of Real Madrid.
Villarreal: Asenjo; Mario, Bonera, Álvaro, Jaume Costa; Rodri, Trigueros, Soriano (Sansone, 63’), Fornals (Ünal, 74’); Raba (Castillejo, 78’), Bacca.
Goals: Ünal 82’ 90+2’
Atlético: Oblak; Vrsaljko, Giménez, Godín, Lucas; Thomas, Saúl, Correa (Vitolo, 71’), Koke (Torres, 85’); Griezmann (Gabi, 80’), Diego Costa.
Goals: Griezmann 20’