Atlético Madrid returned to drawing ways on Sunday, 95 days after the Anfield miracle in the Champions League. Their return came in LaLiga against Athletic Club de Bilbao at San Mamés as Atlético resume the chase for a spot in next season’s elite European competition.
“It’s the first game, but we can’t stumble again,” Koke said on the field after the game.
Diego Simeone’s side could not capitalise on Getafe’s slip on Friday night against Granada though. Sevilla won on Thursday night against Real Betis to solidify their grip on third place. That leaves Real Sociedad — who play on Sunday night against Osasuna — level on 46 points with Getafe and Atlético, behind the leading three.
As the cliche goes, every game is a final for the rest of the 10-game season. The Champions League race could prove to be the most exciting aspect of these next three weeks in Spain.
Simeone followed through with his plan to start Marcos Llorente as the second striker in a 4-4-2 with Yannick Carrasco offering a burst on the left-hand side of an asymmetrical midfield. It was Llorente who provided Atlético with the majority of their creativity. Early on, he took a pass down, pivoted and fed Carrasco through on goal. In that moment, you’d have been excused for thinking Atlético had gotten the James Rodríguez deal over the line. In a team that sometimes lacks that bravery to find quick forward passes, Llorente might be a solution for Simeone.
He could do nothing to prevent the first goal of the game, though. The home side took the lead with Iker Muniain poking home from a Yuri Berchiche cross after 37 minutes. The pressure had been building before that with Jan Oblak forced into a brilliant save from a Yeray header. Berchiche, Athletic’s live-wire left-back, caused problems for Kieran Trippier and offered himself as an outlet for the entire 90 minutes on Sunday.
Two minutes later and Atlético were level. Diego Costa scored his first goal since October 19 after a defence-splitting pass from Koke. It came from a poor clearance by Yeray to Saúl, who played it directly into the captain’s path. He found Costa and things were level. It was a sharp move but Atlético, as they so often do, were shy on such moves for the remainder of the game.
The game lost a lot of intensity in the second half with players tiring and neither budging in defence. Atlético had to settle for what the other team was willing to offer them through mistakes.
The mattress makers had a chance to win it when Renan Lodi sent a ball whizzing across the box inside the final 10 minutes. Santiago Arias drove it straight at Unai Simón. Athletic’s best chance of the second half came after a lovely move by Iñaki Williams — he set up Yuri and he drilled the resulting shot into the side netting.
But in general, Athletic gave them nothing, and Atlético couldn’t create anything on their own. It’s an ongoing issue but could be fixed in the coming weeks with a lot being asked of teams.
“Every time you don’t win, it creates a bit of panic,” Simeone said in his Zoom press conference after the game.
That panic will increase as the games tick by. Traveling to Bilbao to play a physical and organised team was always going to be a tough task after three months of no action. There is no time to dwell on any result, in any case. Atlético’s next game comes at El Sadar on Wednesday. Osasuna might be the team hurt most by the lack of fans in their stadium.