Sunday, May 30 was an eventful day. LaLiga announced teams can train in groups and confirmed kickoff times, while Saúl Ñíguez sent Atlético Madrid Twitter into a frenzy it rarely needs.
But it’s June 1. Yes, protests are raging across the Atlantic Ocean — and Borussia Dortmund star Jadon Sancho took a stand on Sunday. But in Spain, it’s 10 days until Sevilla and Real Betis restart the coronavirus-halted 2019/20 season.
Sixth-place Atlético will not take the field until June 14, when its March 15 clash at Athletic Club will finally be played. While we wait for that exciting event, here are three keys to keep in mind as LaLiga begins its frantic fight to the finish line.
Last chance saloon for “La Pantera”?
Diego Costa is said to be in the best shape of his life. Ordinarily, we hear this kind of talk when Major League Baseball players dig in for Spring Training at-bats — but with an MLB season looking less and less likely, we’ve moved this trope over to football.
[Costa] was never doubted by the coaching staff, but since returning after two months at home, he’s shown that he made the most of the time off.
Injuries have prevented him from rediscovering his best form since rejoining the club from Chelsea, but now he’s two and a half kilos lighter than his ideal weight, which he maintained during the 2013/14 season.
Costa had come back in time for the tie against Liverpool and featured although he wasn’t fully fit, but with his newfound fitness he could be a force for what’s left of the 2019/20 campaign.
That is an incontrovertible fact — Costa indeed appeared in both legs against Liverpool. Whether he played is up for debate.
It’s hard to trust in Costa retaining any semblance of the ferocious, junk-talking 20-goal scorer he used to be. The 31-year-old mostly just talks junk now while pocketing €8 million a year. And he’s about to go to court for alleged tax fraud.
Save for three crucial goals against Arsenal and Real Madrid, things haven’t gone well for Costa since 2017 turned into 2018. But this is his chance to make it right, his chance to justify his place on Atlético’s payroll. Seriously — you never know how big a goal at Osasuna or Getafe could be, let alone one at Camp Nou.
Diego Simeone’s crowded midfield
When last we left Simeone, he was trying out Marcos Llorente on the right-hand side of midfield, letting Thomas Partey control the game while Koke did his trademark drifting. Early returns indicate this midfield construction was successful.
But it will be fascinating to see what Simeone does when he has to reintroduce Vitolo, Yannick Carrasco or Thomas Lemar into the lineup when the team needs to be rotated. If Ángel Correa continues to start on the right, Llorente would be forced into a super-sub role. Saúl often ends up moving to left back but starts games in central midfield. Héctor Herrera’s minutes will be spotty, if he gets them at all.
I’m no swami, but it’s hard to imagine Simeone benching longtime favorite Correa — who happens to be extremely valuable now. The Koke/Saúl/Thomas trio plays just about every game together. So it’s Renan Lodi who figures most heavily in this race — if he cleans up defensively, Saúl doesn’t need to replace him and Llorente will battle with Herrera for minutes. If Costa or Álvaro Morata suffer injuries, Cholo seems likely to turn toward Carrasco or Vitolo at forward, as he has in the past.
Who will need to carry this team into the top four
It’s not an attacker increasingly-talismanic. Or a dynamite midfielder. Not even a superstar goalkeeper.
It’s Felipe Monteiro. No pressure, big man.
The 31-year-old ranks third in clearances per 90 minutes among all center backs with over 1,000 minutes played. He ranks inside the top 20 in aerial duels won per 90 minutes across all of LaLiga. He’s been ever-present in Simeone’s XI since November with only one suspension to his name.
Felipe’s acquisition was the best Atlético made in last summer’s €250 million window — he’s had the greatest immediate impact, at least. Atleti landed a seasoned Diego Godín replacement for only €20 million, and the Brazilian has done his best to replicate the Uruguayan from both statistical and leadership perspectives.
Felipe’s form the rest of the way is critical. He has taken control of the back line in stunning fashion — and Jan Oblak will appreciate not having to make nine saves in a single game.