Was it an off day or a day off?
Sometimes with Atlético Madrid under Diego Simeone, it’s hard to tell because they tend to be a reactionary side, waiting to see what opponents do before they counter and attack themselves. Atlético travelled to Vallecas on Saturday afternoon with one eye on their Champions League game against Juventus on Wednesday night at the Wanda Metropolitano. LaLiga is nothing more than a vague hope at this stage, and they really are relying on upending Juve in the last 16 or else face the possibility of a lost season.
”Atlético vs Juventus could be a perfect Champions League final,” said Alvaro Morata after the Rayo game. He’s right, but it’s not a final. It’s a last 16 tie and regardless of who loses over 180 minutes, someone’s season will be as good as finished once it’s done and the teams that are left will have one less heavyweight to worry about as the competition moves toward its climax in the Wanda Metropolitano on June 1.
Club president Enrique Cerezo has made no secret that Atlético want to and intend to be there — and not as guests. They made it their raison d’être during the summer and doubled down in January with Morata’s signing. Qualification for the knockout stage was the first stage after a humbling exit last season and the draw was not kind to them.
Atlético arrive into the biggest game of their season in their worst form and despite that win in Vallecas, there’s a sense that this isn’t how it was supposed to be this season. They lost to Real Betis two weeks ago and for a second consecutive game against Real Madrid in another match that was like many of the rest of Atlético’s this season — despite their outlay in the summer and whispers that they might actually improve in attack, It was just another shade of boring. But they won in Vallecas even if the sensaciones, as they say in Spain, were not great.
Simeone signed a new contract last week until 2022, which comes at a strange time. Much like Ernesto Valverde’s deal at Barcelona — which did and still is splitting Barcelona fans as to its timing and merit — these deals are announced just before big games as a matter of aesthetics. Barça’s Bartomeu spoke out after AS Roma’s famous quarterfinal comeback last season — the very game that has caused the divide over Valverde — and reports in Spain suggest they announced this new deal to give him their support at an important point in the season. Simeone doesn’t need such backing from his club, but it’s a timely point and a means to reduce any sense of pressure — this isn’t about one game. It’s about a longer-term project and Cholo is leading that project.
Simeone’s ouevre at Atlético is beyond impressive. The problem now with arguing that it’s the end of a cycle is that you have to first clarify how important he has been to the club. There has never been a better manager. He could lose the next 50 games in a row and still have the best record for any Atlético manager in LaLiga. He has turned them from the laughing stock into a steady competitor to battle Real Madrid and Barcelona. His status as a legend at the club is in no doubt — but given Atleti’s wayward league title challenge, they need a massive performance against Juventus to keep the faith alive.
Simeone’s strategy was and remains simple — boil everything down to the bone, eliminate risk and hope that Griezmann or someone with slightly more quality can turn home one of the few chances created. It’s hardly rocket science, but they will need more on Wednesday and in the return leg in Turin.
He has options now too, as we saw in Vallecas on Saturday. Diego Costa is back, he played with Álvaro Morata and things did improve with the pair up front. If the Argentine does see his two strikers as a viable option playing together moving forward, it might mean a move for Antoine Griezmann out to the Arda Turan role on the wing from where he often roved inside. The Frenchman could be given the freedom of the entire attack line with the two strikers as decoys and battering rams to open spaces for him. That would mean Koke is needed to play on the other wing and to offer the work only he can offer. With Saúl and Rodri inside, it achieves many of the things any team needs.
Balance, strength, numbers in midfield, support for the attackers and width will be taken care of by Filipe Luis and Santiago Arias. And that width will be important with Costa and Morata inside waiting for crosses.
Atlético have stayed the same for the last number of years. That’s not a bad thing for stability, and it’s way better than the oscillation that used to take place at the club from quite bad to very bad seasons, along with the odd good season sandwiched in between.
The Juventus game could be a turning point for Simeone and this Atlético side. It’s arguably the most important game of his tenure. The Champions League finals were huge, but Atlético and what they had achieved made them winners before they won or lost those games. This is more polarising in what it could mean for the club.
Max Allegri’s side are considered favourites to win the competition in a confused betting market. A win over them could improve confidence, put the rest of Europe on notice and make Atlético favourites — even if it is by default. A loss and elimination in the round of 16 could have reverberations that alter everything at the club.