Diego Simeone was fairly liberal in giving rest to his stars.
Simeone elected to exclude the in-form Álvaro Morata from Saturday’s proceedings, leaving him on the bench for the entire match. In addition, Antoine Griezmann and Atlético B full back Andres Solano made way for Thomas Lemar and Saúl Ñíguez after 45 minutes. (It’s worth mentioning that Griezmann could have needed this breather, considering he hasn’t scored or assisted a goal in three weeks). Saúl then moved into midfield when Juanfran entered the fray for the final 15 — all with one eye on next week’s crunch clash at Juventus.
Add in Koke and Diego Godín’s suspensions, and you have several key players who Cholo put in a position to be at their freshest for 90 nerve-wracking minutes — and hopefully no more — in Turin on Tuesday.
Atlético Madrid’s defense is inching closer to peak form.
Jan Oblak kept his fifth consecutive clean sheet — something he hadn’t done since April 2016 — and was called upon to make only two saves from open play. Atlético conceded just 0.10 expected goals a week after limiting Real Sociedad to 0.73 xG at Anoeta. Leganés needed over 50 minutes to register a shot from inside the box and they notched a grand total of zero shots after the 73rd minute. José Giménez played 75 minutes on a yellow card and made a game-high seven clearances with three interceptions and two tackles.
Leganés’ touches chart further underscores the strength of Atlético’s defensive performance. By my count, the pepineros managed just eight touches inside the box on Saturday afternoon — despite 55 percent possession.
Atlético were without both senior left backs, a center back and Koke — who’s tasked with holding everything together from midfield — and turned in an expert showing at the back. Atleti’s famous defense has been mostly watertight since the Real Madrid loss, and this return to normalcy could not have come at a better time.
Saúl is fit, firing and may be back to his versatile best.
Initially slotted in at left back, Saúl entered at halftime to replace Solano as Simeone sought to push further forward — and within five minutes, the 24-year-old had scored after he followed up from his own missed penalty.
At times it’s been a difficult season for Saúlito, who has often had to play out of position or perform a water carrier’s duties. But with his second goal in three weeks, he capped an aggressive second half which saw him roam all across the pitch and try to replicate what Koke brings to the team.
Prime Saúl brings such a diverse skill set — which happens to include big goals in important moments. With Juve looming on Tuesday and possibly several more important matches down the road, that’s worth remembering.