T-minus 10 days until Liverpool come to the Wanda Metropolitano for the first of two legs in the Champions League. It’s the last 16, and it’s Atlético Madrid’s last chance at a trophy, having been tossed out of the Copa by Cultural Leonesa and beaten already in their pursuit of a league title due to their lack of goals. They could not have had a better game to settle themselves after two draws and a loss, but Saturday’s 1-0 win over Granada was a lot harder than it ever needed to be.
Granada are into a Copa del Rey semi-final against Athletic Bilbao on Wednesday. That’s the only competition they have a hope of winning and rested some, but not all, of their players. Darwin Machís was left out, as was Carlos Fernandez in attack.
Diego Simeone welcomed Koke back into the starting 11 for the first time in five league games, his importance only understood when he is gone. Ángel Correa partnered Vitolo in attack too, with a pure number nine missing given injuries to Álvaro Morata and Diego Costa.
This was a hungrier version of Atlético than we had seen in weeks. More clinical, too. Correa needed just one chance and six minutes before slotting beyond Aarón Escandell after a pass from Koke. Following that initial burst, however, the stupor began.
The enigma that is Vitolo remains unsolved. He was the protagonist in the opening 20 minutes on Saturday night as he whistled one by the post and scored another only to have it ruled out for offside. But he started to drop deeper as the half wore on, his danger blunted.
Koke’s return doesn’t turn Atlético into a supped-up version of themselves, but he does make the team functional. And functional is better than what Atlético were without him — ready for the scrapheap. Attacks last that little bit longer with Koke on the field, the links that connect midfield and attack no longer seem fraught and fragile. They’re strong and stable. He liberates Thomas Partey to be his error-prone but often brilliant self.
Yet with no number nine and Atlético suffering from a crisis in attack, it mattered little. It was the same in the second half, when the hosts exploded into life in the early going. Saúl’s shot from a perfect Correa cross was as good as it came. Atlético had to endure, like they always do, and so did the fans. They showed their discontent when Granada continued to pump the ball forward and then win the rebounds. There was a save from Jan Oblak on Roberto Soldado and a free that was pumped over the bar. The equaliser almost felt inevitable.
Atlético grew more jittery with the ball at their feet and Oblak’s clearances got longer. This side has taken a beating with injuries, and it shows. It ended 1-0, with some fans heading off to beat their traffic not out of anger but apathy.
Atlético have a lot to fix in the next 10 days. Some players will return but not all of them, and the stupor we have seen the team settle into at times in recent weeks persists. LaLiga is gone and so is the Copa. All that’s left is the Champions League, and the day of reckoning for that comes soon too.