It was thisclose.
Ángel Correa nearly moved to AC Milan in August, as Atlético Madrid zeroed in first on Real Madrid’s James Rodríguez before shifting focus to Valencia’s Rodrigo Moreno. The deal for the Spain international was agreed upon, but it was contingent on hammering out the exact terms of Correa’s transfer with Milan. And the Serie A side, long beset with financial issues, could not come up with the cash to satisfy Atlético.
So Correa stayed after a difficult 2018/19, which saw him fail to produce and lash out — most prominently against Juventus in the Champions League, where he conceded a backbreaking penalty in the second leg. But a funny thing has happened — he’s since morphed into one of this team’s best players.
Diego Simeone made the move on 56 minutes, removing an ineffectual Thomas Lemar and inserting Correa. His countryman opened the scoring two minutes later as he pickpocketed full back Álex Moreno, slid around Joel Robles and tapped home neatly with the right foot.
Only half an hour passed before Correa pulled out another rabbit from the metaphorical hat. The 24-year-old finished a quick counterattack with fancy footwork and an incisive cross to Álvaro Morata, whose backheeled finish was perhaps his classiest of the campaign so far.
Correa is up to five assists this season — three ahead of any other Rojiblanco and one off the league lead, currently shared among four players (including Rodrigo). With this newfound production has come a leap in importance, and I am here to argue that only Felipe Monteiro and Thomas Partey have proven as consistent since the season kicked off — though Morata and Kieran Trippier have sound cases themselves.
In this form, Correa adds so much to an Atlético attack which so often lacks a tangible link between the midfield and the forward line. His displays from the past eight weeks or so point to a player who has experienced an awakening — even if that clarity has taken him over 200 appearances to achieve.
- Atlético won away from home in LaLiga for the first time since Sept. 25.
- This was not Atlético’s best performance against the backdrop of recent weeks — less possession, sloppier passing and fewer chances created marked this match. But Atleti, with only 33 percent possession, held Real Betis without a chance during a key stretch of the game (minutes 25 through 60) and showed real resolve once a goal up. A game like this can form a base that will be needed to beat a team like, say, Liverpool in a couple months.
- Morata is scoring again — he’s notched winning goals in back-to-back weeks. But he should have had a brace on Sunday, as he blew a one-on-one opportunity Félix created for him.
Yikes. These misses probably will always be a part of Morata’s game, which is why the 27-year-old needs cover and support. Atlético will try to find backup in January and patiently wait for Diego Costa’s return.
- Marc Bartra’s consolation goal went to VAR and should have been disallowed — Moreno (#15, in the box) knocks down the ball with his outstretched arm. Nonetheless, Felipe got dragged out of the play and did poorly here.
- Simeone made an interesting choice to play Héctor Herrera on the right side of midfield in Koke’s absence. The Mexican provided some cover for Trippier but looked awkward in this unfamiliar position. Correa’s entry allowed him to move back into the middle, where his comfort was more evident.
- Atlético were out of the European places two-and-a-half weeks ago. The mattress makers are fourth now, with a winnable home game against Levante next up on Jan. 4. After that, Simeone’s men jet off for Saudi Arabia to play the Supercopa semifinal against Barcelona.