Back on June 14, Atlético Madrid resumed its league campaign on the road in Bilbao. Los Colchoneros sat sixth in LaLiga, one point outside the top four. But after a 1-1 draw in the Basque Country, Atlético gained steam, won six games in 26 days and on Saturday secured its place in next season’s UEFA Champions League.
Diego Costa scored Atlético’s third goal — but the first one that counted — to lift his side to a 1-0 win over an aggressive and imprecise Real Betis. The Andalusians had the numerical advantage following Mario Hermoso’s ejection, yet Diego Simeone’s substitutions again proved decisive.
Here are some more thoughts that I thought and now will share with you:
- Ángel Correa had the ball in the net on 22 minutes, lashing it beyond Dani Martín to get the hosts on the score sheet. But Marcos Llorente pretty clearly batted down the ball around the penalty spot, and the goal was disallowed.
Then came Álvaro Morata’s 35th minute chip.
Pretty sweet, right? Too bad VAR disallowed it because Morata was “offside” when Koke’s pass sent him on his way.
Morata is level with the defender, and the only possible infraction would be his right arm stretching beyond the arbitrary lines.
VAR has taken another beating over the past month, as there seems to be little consistency or clarity behind offside checks and spot kick reviews. One can only theorize as to how empty stadiums are impacting decisions, or if the system itself is deeply flawed.
- Fortunately for Atlético, Diego Costa reemerged after a brief lull to register his third goal from his past eight games.
Funnily enough, this goal went to VAR as well, and it could have been overturned — Costa did not head the ball cleanly and it struck his shoulder and/or collarbone before bouncing in. Simeone continues to utilize his 31-year-old forward effectively — he hasn’t played more than 80 minutes over the past month, he’s stayed reasonably fit, and he delivered on Saturday.
“I prefer to suffer and win (rather) than be sad,” Costa said. “I am happy, hopefully the suffering continues, accompanied by glory.”
- While on the subject of Simeone’s substitutions...Yannick Carrasco became a set-piece specialist in China and brought that quality back with him via his inch-perfect setup for Costa...Santiago Arias looked somewhat unsure offensively, but Simeone has to be impressed with his more-consistent defensive output...Vitolo was very inspired against an old foe from his Sevilla days, completing all his passes and working particularly hard as Arias’ cover...Felipe isn’t back to his physical peak yet, but he made two clearances, two interceptions and a block in half an hour.
- Felipe probably was not part of the plan Saturday, but Simeone had little choice but to throw him on after Hermoso went and got himself sent off.
Loren Morón — who had missed a sitter which should have put Betis ahead minutes earlier — juked Hermoso out of his boots, so the ex-Espanyol defender responded by swiping cynically at the forward’s left leg and bringing him down. Referee González González immediately pulled out a red card — perhaps harshly, but I didn’t feel it was an outrageous decision.
The red card should bring an end to Hermoso’s spotty debut season in Madrid. He has appeared in less than half the team’s games, and he hasn’t convinced even during an extended run of games between October and December. The 25-year-old has four years still to run on his contract, but he will be under pressure to turn around his game next season amid competition from three other quality center-halves.
- Atlético had never made three straight appearances in the European Cup/Champions League prior to Simeone’s appointment in 2011. Indeed, Atleti had played in the competition only eight times before Cholo guided the team to third place in 2012/13. His side has now qualified for the Champions League via league position eight years running. Only Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Benfica, Juventus, Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid can say the same.
ATM XI Oblak; Trippier, Hermoso (red card 57’), Savić, Lodi; Thomas, Saúl (Carrasco 55’), Correa (Felipe 61’), Koke; Llorente (Vitolo 55’), Morata (Costa 55’)
Goal Costa 74’
RBB XI Martín; Barragán (Emerson 70’), Bartra, Sidnei, Moreno (Tello 83’); Guido, Carvalho (Joaquín 70’); Canales, Guardado (Pedraza 43’), Fékir; Morón (Iglesias 83’).