Atlético Madrid avoided going six games without a win under Diego Simeone for the first time courtesy of a more-difficult-than-expected triumph over Tercera RFEF side Sociedad Deportiva Almazán at the Nuevo Estadio Los Pajaritos.
The 2-0 victory came via an Ángel Correa strike in the first half (on his 350th appearance for the club), followed by a brilliant effort from João Félix in the second period.
Simeone fielded a strong side, more on that later, to ensure Atleti safe passage to the second round of the Copa del Rey. The Rojiblancos will now go back into the hat for the next round, which will be played in early January.
Here are three things learned from the game.
Diego Simeone is more interested in the Copa than some of the dressing room big guns
This starting line-up was an incredibly strong one. Not a single player was called up from Atleti’s youth teams to the starting line-up, which included six players who will be featuring in the World Cup in Qatar: Antoine Griezmann, João Félix, Axel Witsel, Koke, Marcos Llorente and Nahuel Molina. Rodrigo de Paul and Josema Giménez didn’t avoid the game either, both coming on at half-time.
That was a clearer commitment to the competition than some of the first-team dressing room heavyweights may have wanted to give. This was already clear on Friday, when Yannick Carrasco and Álvaro Morata followed up their World Cup call-ups with “slight” injuries.
Yannick Carrasco, with a muscle contracture, and Álvaro Morata, with a low-grade muscle injury in the hip, do not exercise with the group.— Atlético de Madrid (@atletienglish) November 11, 2022
Before Atlético played at Mallorca, Almazán were 50/1 to win this cup match. After that defeat, those odds plummeted to 20/1. Given this disastrous run of form and Atleti’s horrific recent history in the Copa del Rey, an upset might not have been the biggest surprise, and Simeone clearly did not want to gamble.
Last season, El Cholo similarly went with a strong team in the early rounds before crashing out against Real Sociedad. This year, there will be less pressure on those legs in the second half of the campaign. With no European run on the cards, no Super Cup participation and with a top four finish looking like a battle, the team’s only shot at silverware this year is the Copa del Rey.
Simeone’s intentions are clear, but they have not quite been matched by some of the players in the dressing room. This seemed to be a clear statement of intent.
Finishing is an issue
Fortunately for Atlético, Almazán perdonó.
Chance after chance fell to the away team, which had over 80% possession at times, but Simeone’s forwards failed to take advantage. For all the possession, there was no cutting edge or movement to break through Almazán’s low block, and no sign of any kind of inspired finishing to see off Atleti’s rivals.
Koke and Marcos Llorente both hit the woodwork in the early stages, but Almazán goalkeeper Alberto González was only called upon to make one real save of note as he denied Llorente again later on.
When the goal did come on 35 minutes, from Ángel Correa, it was fortunate to say the least. The Argentinian pounced as González struggled to control a speculative João Félix effort from distance.
The most shots across the 90 minutes were had by Mario Hermoso. Yes, you’ve read that correctly. Five in total. Zero were on target. Nil. Nothing. Zilch. Yet again, question marks can be raised over his in-game intelligence, despite his bravery to throw himself at every corner into the box.
For Angelito, it may feel even more frustrating to have missed out on a World Cup call-up as he watched some of his team-mates, who will be undisputed starters for their countries, miss chance after chance. The less said about Nahuel Molina’s attempt on goal which went out for a throw-in, the better.
But there was a glimpse. As almost always seems to be the case, João Félix showed up for a flash. His goal, the second, with some impressive build-up play alongside Rodrigo de Paul, provided that ability to change a game in a moment and create something out of nothing, with a move starting deep and ending in the Portugal ace wheeling away in celebration. After 64 minutes of almost nothing, he turned it on.
It leaves many at Atleti wondering why those moments are few and far between, but it serves as a reminder of just what he is capable of.
JOÃO FÉLIX pic.twitter.com/K884SfjfEk— Football Report ☮️ #BerhalterOut (@FootballReprt) November 12, 2022
The job got done
It sounds basic, but it really hasn’t been as simple as it seems for Atlético in recent years. Cornellà and Cultural Leonesa will only be too happy to tell you and remind any Colchoneros of just how easy it can be to be knocked out early on in the Copa del Rey. Given the importance of the competition this season, another humiliation would have been devastating.
This result also, crucially, avoids a disastrous statistics of six matches without a win. That’s an important mental factor to avoid for a team who won’t play again until after Christmas and now face six weeks mulling over however this game ended.
After a terrible few weeks have seen draws and defeats against mediocre opposition, getting the job done against Almazán was a necessity. Atleti did little more than that, but they checked the box and can now move on.
With LaLiga’s bottom team Elche next up to play Atlético, at the Civítas Metropolitano on 31 December, this result in the cup will buoy confidence somewhat. It’s a chance to start afresh and look to rebuild heading into 2023.
FC Barcelona will be the next team to visit, a tough test, but the following five matches after that are all winnable. With a very tough late February, including games against several top-four rivals, hitting the ground running in those first few weeks post-World Cup is essential.
Fortunately, now, Atleti could also have a Copa del Rey run to contend with.