A varied, unpredictable look
This is how you make the most out of losing Luis Suárez.
Diego Simeone reshuffled the pack after the Uruguayan limped out of training a couple weeks back, and his Atlético Madrid side has put together back-to-back wins to extend its lead atop LaLiga to three points.
On Thursday, Pacheta’s Huesca came to Madrid in decent form and trying to escape a second relegation from LaLiga in three seasons. Atlético jumped on top early and Ángel Correa’s 39th minute golazo put the colchoneros ahead to stay — just as he did against Eibar four days earlier. Ten minutes from time, Marcos Llorente pickpocketed Dimitrios Siovas and fed Yannick Carrasco for the Belgian’s third goal in as many games.
(Llorente also secured his 10th assist of the league season, meaning he’s one of two players — at the moment — to have notched double-figures in goals and assists.)
Simeone — remember, ever the pragmatist — reformatted his team to adapt to the latest injury batch. He’s moved back to a flexible 4-4-2/4-3-3 that notably includes a healthy Héctor Herrera at its base. Herrera’s presence frees Koke to move around and play closer to the final third — where the elastic Carrasco/Correa/Llorente trio has sizzled.
The challenge for Cholo now will be reintegrating Suárez, João Félix and Thomas Lemar into Sunday’s lineup to face Athletic Club — all three are expected to be available in Bilbao. The game at San Mamés is the first in a season-defining three-game road trip, which culminates at Camp Nou on May 8.
Renan Lodi’s resurgence
Like they did in autumn, new contributors are stepping up in the rojiblancos’ time of need — from Herrera to Carrasco and Correa. But for me, there were two protagonists in Atlético’s win over Huesca — Llorente (who activated full-on “runaway train” mode in the second half) and Renan Lodi.
Atlético greatly enjoyed the space Huesca offered on the flanks. Kieran Trippier had a very good game, his nearly-telepathic connection with Llorente again proving decisive on Atleti’s opening goal. Lodi followed up his strong outing against Eibar with 86 excellent minutes on Thursday, as his teammates constantly looked for him to stretch the field with his runs in behind the overmatched Mikel Rico.
Lodi did not have a hand in either goal at the Wanda Metropolitano, but he completed a season-high five dribbles and was engaged defensively — most notably when he made a game-saving challenge to deny Sandro Ramírez an equalizer less than 15 minutes from time.
The Brazilian’s bounce-back couldn’t be happening at a better time for him — or a worse time for Mario Hermoso, who has had a largely-brilliant season helping Atlético’s buildup from the back. Hermoso has been glued to the bench the past two games, both convincing wins.
For the time being, Cholo looks to have replicated Hermoso’s ball-progression contributions with Lodi and Herrera in a tweaked 4-3-3, and the four-man defense has kept consecutive clean sheets for the first time since December 30(!). The coach might be tempted keep it rolling with Lodi, who has come alive at a crucial time in what’s been a stop-start sophomore season in Spain.
State of the Race
Here we go for today’s State of the Race:
- Sevilla (21-4-7, 67 points) continue to hang around after Youssef En-Nesyri’s solo goal delivered his side a 1-0 win over Levante on Wednesday. Julen Lopetegui’s men cemented another top-four place a while ago, and they deserve a lot of credit for being in the conversation at this point in the season. But they will have to win out and get a ton of help to claim an incredible title — Sevilla do not have the head-to-head advantage over any of the three teams they’re chasing.
- Barcelona (21-5-5, 68 points) pulled away late in a 5-2 win versus Getafe on Thursday. Lionel Messi and co. sit third with a game in hand to be made up next week. If the Blaugrana win Sunday’s tricky visit to Villarreal, I think you have to consider them Atlético’s most dangerous challengers.
- Real Madrid (21-7-4, 70 points) were top briefly Thursday morning before Atleti defeated Huesca. Zinedine Zidane is still missing several players due to illness or injury, but as long as two of the Benzema/Casemiro/Kroos/Modrić core four is available, Madrid should be favored against any opposition. (Benzema is perhaps in the best form of his career right now.) That said, I still have a suspicion that the absences and the fixture pileup will come back to bite los blancos — they have a tough test versus Betis on Saturday night before the Champions League semifinal first leg against Chelsea.