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Vitolo injury complicates already-delicate squad standing

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The winger’s damaged knee ligament is another setback in his stop-start Atlético career.

Atletico Madrid v Arsenal FC - UEFA Europa League Semi Final Second Leg

One game, one injury.

Atlético Madrid’s 2018/19 Liga Santander campaign kicked off in neutral on Monday, as los rojiblancos were held to a 1-1 draw at Mestalla. A feisty Valencia could have won the match themselves — Atlético, too, though they faded in the second half — and Diego Simeone was generally impressed with his side’s effort, just five days after they won the UEFA Super Cup in Estonia.

What Simeone will be less-than-pleased about is that prized asset Vitolo is set another spell on the sidelines, as he suffered a Grade II MCL sprain in his left knee during Monday night’s match.

Vitolo’s place in this team came under some scrutiny this past summer as Atlético signed wingers Thomas Lemar and Gelson Martins and held onto Ángel Correa (who’s really a striker in winger’s clothing). This latest malady — after he missed nearly the entire preseason with a sprained ankle — won’t reduce that spotlight’s glare.

After Simeone nearly went to Gran Canaria himself to sign the player last year, Atlético had to wait until January to register Vitolo as the club saw out its transfer ban and the Canary Islander recovered from a hamstring strain. He started sporadically over the next four months — which was strange considering Atleti sold Yannick Carrasco and Nico Gaitán in February — but showed his value by laying on a goal in April’s Madrid Derby and melding a high work rate with good technical ability. However, he suffered another knock to his hamstring against Espanyol in May and missed the Europa League final as a result.

Then, the transfer window re-opened, and with it came Lemar, Gelson and perhaps an end to Simeone’s cuatropivote (the midfield four comprised entirely of central midfielders). Even then, Vitolo played 45 minutes against Real Madrid in the Super Cup, where he tore their tired defense to shreds — he assisted Atlético’s fourth goal and put Dani Carvajal and Raphaël Varane in a blender.

Vitolo’s touches in the UEFA Super Cup, concentrated on the left side of midfield.

Vitolo’s fragility will make it easier for 22-year-old Lemar to solidify a more-or-less permanent place in Simeone’s XI (although his €70 million transfer fee may have done that for him), and rapid development from 23-year-old Gelson may make it hard to justify starting a 28-year-old with a bad knee over him. What’s more, Simeone considers 23-year-old Correa an essential piece at this point, and he has demonstrated he will start Correa alongside Diego Costa and Antoine Griezmann.

Vitolo will miss three weeks at the minimum and could even be out until November. This latest injury could prove to be a massive complication to a player still trying to carve out his role in this team — and for a coach who still has not figured out how to best utilize his €37 million signing. We don’t yet know where Atlético will be or what they will look like in, say, a month to six weeks — but we do know that it’s unlikely the ex-Sevilla man is part of that plan.