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Luis Suárez and the refusal to let Atlético lose

Undermanned Atlético could only draw versus Celta, but Suárez’s winning attitude remains intact and essential.

FBL-ESP-LIGA-ATLETICO-CELTA Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP via Getty Images

On Monday night, Atlético Madrid failed to win a league game for the first time since mid-December. It must have been a strange, unwelcome feeling for the side that has surged to the top of LaLiga while playing arguably the best football in the division — boasting the league’s top scorer and top goalkeeper along the way.

While Jan Oblak still leads the league with 11 clean sheets and only 12 goals conceded, he has been hit for six goals in the past four games as Atlético’s shorthanded defense has allowed higher-percentage shots to get through. Fortunately for Oblak, Yannick Carrasco will be back Saturday against Granada, with Mario Hermoso hopefully not too far behind him. Both players will provide an upgrade over Renan Lodi and Felipe Monteiro, respectively — the Brazilians suffered in the first half against Celta Vigo, when Atleti played in its modified 3-5-2 formation.

But with one touch from an astounding Marcos Llorente cross, Luis Suárez poked the rojiblancos back into the game. He then turned it around entirely five minutes after halftime, after Diego Simeone had inserted Lucas Torreira to shore up midfield, after the Argentine had reverted to the old-fashioned 4-4-2.

Simeone’s decision to switch to 4-4-2 was a wise one with so many players out — Héctor Herrera and Thomas Lemar joined Carrasco, Hermoso, Moussa Dembélé and João Félix as COVID-positive earlier on Monday. Lodi assisted Suárez’s second goal and finished with three interceptions. Geoffrey Kondogbia had a monster second half and made a team-high 12 recoveries. But a late defensive switch-off allowed Augusto Solari to throw a hopeful cross into the six-yard box, creating a 0.94 xG chance that Facundo Ferreyra converted. Full-time, 2-2. Understandable, but tough, result.

Of course, Atlético wouldn’t have even been in a position to shake off an abysmal first 45 and recover a point without Suárez, who notched his third doblete in the past four games.

“(We have to) continue working to achieve the objectives,” he said on Instagram after the game.

Suárez’s 1.13 goals per 90 mark is the highest he’s registered since 2015/16 — when he won the Pichichi and the Golden Shoe as Europe’s top scorer. His 16 goals have come from a mere 20 shots on target, a cool 80 percent conversion rate*. The Uruguayan has already equaled his haul from last season at Barcelona and is set to receive some extra bread for his exploits.

(*stats courtesy of fbref.com.)

“Talking about Luis Suárez is a sign (that we scored goals),” Simeone said. “He is an important player when he has chances near the penalty area. We all hope to continue growing as a team.”

Luis Suarez of Atletico de Madrid reacts during the La Liga... Photo by Manu Reino/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Suárez has been crucial to Atlético’s growth as a team — not just through his many goals over the past six weeks, which have often been decisive. Concerns that the British strain of COVID-19 is responsible for knocking out creative forces Carrasco, Félix, Hermoso, and Lemar over the past week-plus mean El Pistolero is more crucial than at any point since his September arrival. Even though Atlético did not win Monday and the team had to prepare for the game over a Zoom call, the point from a losing position against a healthy, aggressive Celta team is one Simeone’s men will take — though not gladly, as Suárez’s presence will continue to demand the absolute best from everyone available.

“We have to win our home games,” Koke said after the final whistle. “We are letting in too many goals at the start of games, and we have to improve on that if we want to fight for the league.”

Los Rojiblancos haven’t started a league season this well since 2013/14. They lead Real Madrid by five points, with two games in hand. Suárez’s personality, clutch gene, and goals have helped them get there. Now, with an entire second half still to play out this season, with COVID lurking in every tight space, in every stadium, the 34-year-old’s form will come to define this period of adversity for Atlético.