Álvaro Morata got his chance — and buried it.
Diego Simeone issued a challenge to his €50 million number nine. The Argentine placed Morata on the bench to begin Tuesday night’s game, and it was perhaps deserved given his long goal drought. It has been said throughout the ex-Chelsea forward’s career that he has lacked a killer instinct and struggled to convert even easy chances — and that has been true to a point.
Thankfully for Atlético Madrid, that was not the case Tuesday. Morata — who turns 27 on Wednesday — answered his coach’s call and got a big embrace after he headed home from Renán Lodi’s cross. In a game of few opportunities, he had the biggest one, and he made no mistake to power the ball off Lukás Hrádecky’s right hand.
With leading scorer João Félix on the shelf, Atlético’s goals have to come from their expensive forwards. Diego Costa got one on Saturday, and Morata followed up on Tuesday. Those could be considered promising developments.
José Giménez has yet to overcome his physical fragility.
Since March 2016, Atlético’s sole Uruguayan has suffered eight different injuries which have kept him out 14 days or longer. Three kept him out for a month. Five have been muscular injuries, and it looks like he sustained another one against Bayer Leverkusen.
Giménez tried to chase down a loose ball to cover for a wayward Kieran Trippier but pulled up near the boundary line and immediately requested a substitution. It appeared to be another hamstring issue, a setback to a player who has emerged as the defensive leader and was named a captain before the season.
Stefan Savić is out with a muscular injury of his own and he is not expected to make his return against Athletic Bilbao this weekend. As it stands, Mario Hermoso and Felipe Monteiro — who both played well Tuesday — are Simeone’s only fit central defenders. The coach has tested Marcos Llorente’s capabilities there in training recently, and we’ll have to see if this is his shot to impress.
Atlético are still reliant on an out-of-form Koke.
Before this match, there was chatter that Koke would take up the enganche role behind Costa and Ángel Correa, playing as the “hook” between midfield and the forwards in front of him. A lovely idea, right?
Instead, Koke ran around on the left flank seemingly without purpose for 70 minutes until Simeone hauled him off in a move which changed the game.
The captain’s start to the season has been really up-and-down — for years he’s kept Atlético’s midfield together by making an interception here, a long ball there, and of course sprinting all the yards no one else sprinted. He didn’t really do any of that against Leverkusen. Though he wasn’t the only one, his passing was off (just 70 percent) and he picked up a yellow card for a needless challenge on Kai Havertz. He was whirled around and dribbled past more than once, and Thomas Lemar turned out to be the one who played as the enganche upon his entry — he got the pre-assist on Morata’s goal.
Keep an eye on Koke. He’s still only 27, so I’m not sure if we can yet say that all the miles on his odometer are starting to show. But Simeone doesn’t ever drop the guy and only rarely substitutes him.