ATM XI: Oblak, Arias, Savic, Giménez, Filipe, Koke (Vitolo 90’), Saúl, Rodri, Lemar (Thomas 64’), Griezmann, Morata (Costa 58’)
VIL XI: Asenjo, Funes Mori (Chukwueze 57’), Ruiz, González, Gaspar, Pedraza, Cáseres (Fornals 76’), Iborra, Cazorla, Ekambi, Bacca (Gerard Moreno 68’)
Unfortunately, the second half of the league season for Atlético Madrid has been quite underwhelming, partially due to the team’s struggles domestically and Barcelona’s continued success. After the league leaders looked as if they would drop points on Saturday against Sevilla, Lionel Messi decided that would not happen, therefore making Atlético’s match on Sunday a bit less interesting. However, Atleti were in a position to virtually ensure Champions League football for next season, as the chasm between 1-3 and the rest of the table has widened. One of the reasons for LaLiga’s strange table this season is because of Villarreal, all but a lock for the European places in previous years, now are struggling not to be relegated.
The situation Villarreal find themselves in manifested itself in their play, quite clearly lacking confidence despite the talent on their team. In the early stages, Atlético were able to stitch together good-looking attacks, but none that resulted in any clear chances. Karl Toko Ekambi did force Jan Oblak into a good save at his near post, but it was at best half a chance. The away side did well to earn a number of corners through their strikers’ athleticism.
Álvaro Morata, despite his horrendous luck so far, looked more aware of his role in this team than in recent weeks, doing tremendously well to hold up the ball and draw fouls. Nothing he does is spectacular, but under pressure from defenders, he’s been able to bring his teammates into play in a way that really plays to players like Antoine Griezmann and Thomas Lemar’s strengths. This allowed for Atlético to retain possession far more than they have in many domestic matches this season.
And it would be Atleti’s new signing who opened the scoring, and nobody was more thrilled than Morata himself. The goal came at the end of a fantastic team move, starting with Griezmann on the halfway line, picking a fantastic pass to Santiago Arias. Arias then fed Morata, who held the ball up and passed to Rodri, who found Filipe, and the cross went right to Morata’s left foot. The ex-Real Madrid man showed fantastic accuracy to place the ball in the bottom corner of the net on the volley.
After halftime, Atlético seemed to be in control of the match, with a bit less possession than in the first half. Villarreal’s best chance came on 55’ for Carlos Bacca, who dwelt far too long on the ball and ultimately had his shot blocked excellently by Giménez. The goal scorer Morata was removed for Diego Costa on 58’ so Atlético’s other big Spaniard could hopefully get on the scoresheet. Moments after coming on, Costa was through one on one with the goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo before he tripped over his own feet and let the chance go to waste. And then the same thing happened again, except this time Costa actually got a shot off, but it was deflected away for a corner. From the resulting corner, José Giménez came in like a wrecking ball and forced a save from Asenjo.
Diego Simeone has faced a good amount of criticism this season, including from this writer, but all credit to Simeone today — the team he selected was fantastic. The midfield had much more balance with Lemar instead of Thomas Partey. Saúl Ñíguez also had one of his better games of the season, really controlling the tempo for Atlético, and really quite bright in his usage of the ball. He then scored Atleti’s second on 88 minutes after a fantastic pass from Costa set him free to kill the game off with a lob.
Overall, a sensational performance against a team desperate for points, and it keeps the good feeling post-Juventus going.