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Vrsaljko could take Kieran Trippier’s starting right-back spot

The Croatian was excellent against Liverpool and should only get better when he gets back to full fitness.

Atletico Madrid v Liverpool FC - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: First Leg Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

Šime Vrsaljko already has several entries next to his name in the index of Atlético Madrid’s history books. The Croatian right-back has only played 59 games for the club, but already his name has been featured in — and, often, misspelled in — so many headlines.

There was his battle for minutes with Juanfran after joining in 2016. There was the controversial red card nine minutes into the 2017/18 Europa League semi-final first leg at Arsenal. There was the victorious final of that competition, where he was taken off at half-time. There was his loan move to Inter Milan. There was his serious knee injury, then his return from said injury. There was his excellent performance in the Champions League last 16 first leg against Liverpool. And there was his viral-and-controversial-and-then-deleted video the morning after. So many headlines.

There was even the moment when Fernando Torres fell unconscious during a match at Deportivo La Coruña in March 2017, when Vrsaljko was the first hero on the scene to ensure El Niño’s tongue wasn’t blocking his ability to breathe.

“I had heard many times that you must make sure that the person is able to breathe, to stop his tongue blocking it, to get it out,” he said after that incident. “When you see a friend down on the ground like that, in a bad way, you have to help them.”

To have done all of the above in just three-and-a half-years as an Atlético player — with a loan out at Inter and an injury layoff included — proves Vrsaljko is already a very significant figure in Atlético’s recent history.

But what about the future?

Vrsaljko’s Atlético career was supposed to already be over. When he returned to Serie A on an initial loan of €7m in summer 2018, he wasn’t supposed to come back. There was a €15m purchase option, and Inter were expected to trigger it. That’s why Atleti signed Santiago Arias and then Kieran Trippier.

But in January 2019, the World Cup runner-up suffered a devastating knee injury that kept him out for a full year. Back to the Spanish capital he went as he worked on his recovery in the shadows, watching on as Juanfran, Arias and Trippier all spent time occupying the right side of Diego Simeone’s back line.

After one full year and 13 days out, Vrsaljko made his second colchonero debut. He returned to action in the 0-0 draw with Leganés at the end of January to cover for the injured Trippier and Arias. With the team’s injury issues in that position continuing, he also started and played 90 minutes against Real Madrid and Granada the following two weeks, before coming on as a 53rd minute substitute at Valencia.

Then came the Liverpool game. Most in the local media expected Arias to be given the nod at right-back in Trippier’s stead, yet it was Vrsaljko who lined up to take on Andrew Robertson and Sadio Mané. After having looked rusty in his first few games back, there was logical concern.

Yet Vrsaljko was absolutely incredible in that Champions League game. He was one of the best players on the pitch. So, now what?

Arias is back and Trippier is close to returning, so Simeone will soon have three right-backs from whom to pick. While Arias appears to be at the bottom of the pecking order, it has to be kept in mind that Trippier has had largely-good first season at Atlético. But, like Vrsaljko, consistency has been the Englishman’s problem.

Perhaps this is how Simeone will solve this problem — which is a good problem to have. Perhaps he’ll simply decide to run with the hot hand, whoever that happens to be in any given moment. For now, the hot hand belongs to Vrsaljko.

The 28-year-old was the one keeping a clean sheet against Liverpool. And he’ll be the one trying to do so against Villarreal, adding further entries into his bulging index in Atlético Madrid’s history books.