Back in the top four and facing a crucial Champions League fixture against Manchester United in only a few days, Atlético Madrid could not afford to slip up at home to Cádiz. They avoided doing so, though it was far from comfortable.
João Félix opened the scoring after only a few minutes, rounding Jeremías Ledesma to finish. But Álvaro Negredo found space between José María Giménez and Reinildo Mandava at the far post to head in an equaliser on the stroke of half-time. In the second half, Rodrigo de Paul grabbed the winner with a shot into the ground that looped over Ledesma after the keeper had steered aside an Ángel Correa shot.
Here are three things learned from a challenging victory for Atlético.
Spanish refereeing is woeful
Unfortunately, we have to start with the elephant in the room. It’s a man dressed in black. His name is Pablo González Fuertes.
A grand total of four red cards were shown at Estadio Wanda Metropolitano on Friday, though only one would remain and affect a player on the field.
First out of the hat was Reinildo. Some will argue the decision to show him a red card was the right one, as he appeared to jump in with two feet. But there was barely any contact made and, despite Rubén Alcaraz’s desperate attempts to make it look like it, no damage was done. VAR called him back to correct his decision.
The worst decision of the lot was to send off youngster Javi Serrano in the 89th minute. The fact that this energetic, unknown, youngster had come on with all guns blazing is unlikely to have impressed the referee, who didn’t hesitate to send him off for a perfectly-fair challenge which led to a clash of shins in the follow-through. Where was VAR for this one? Perhaps afraid to humiliate their colleague twice in the same game?
González Fuertes went on to send off two members of the Cádiz staff as he completely lost control of the tie. It was a display of incompetence that only added to the comedy of his performance.
Perhaps it was unsurprising, coming from the referee with the third-highest red cards per game rate in LaLiga (González Fuertes averages one every three games). Even so, a trend is developing following Atlético’s complaints about Real Betis’s unpunished aggressive tackling last weekend.
“I feel like the referee wasn’t balanced in his decisions,” Cádiz coach Sergio González said post-match. It really does take something impressive to upset both teams quite so much.
Atleti have a serious midfield problem
Koke’s return to the team almost struck fear into some Atlético fans, so unconvinced are they by the captain’s form this season. They may have had a point.
Coming into a midfield three alongside Héctor Herrera and Rodrigo de Paul, Koke only served to unbalance the middle of the park further. He was hauled off at half-time after contributing next to nothing to the midfield, while Herrera looked more limited and frustrated, with more unsuccessful long-ball attempts.
De Paul was arguably the worst of the trio. Sure, he scored with a smart finish eight minutes after the hour, but that was one of very few positives from his display. A look at the stats, showing nine recoveries and three key passes, seem to suggest otherwise. But to the naked eye, he was off the pace.
In the past, de Paul was a player who let the basics pass him by to create the spectacular. Now, he does the basics with no fuss, sacrificing the spectacular in order to do so, but he’s often let himself down. Amateur mistakes like poor touches, failing to complete five-yard passes and so on, mean his performances can be remembered for more-basic mistakes rather than getting a job done.
What this match made clear across the board was Geoffrey Kondogbia’s absence. With the Frenchman in the team, the midfield had an anchor ready to do the dirty and allow Herrera more room to shine. Without him, that role seemed to be spread across the three midfielders, with none of them doing a particularly good job of it. De Paul was the only man of the midfield three to win a tackle, claiming two.
Luis Suárez’s days as a starter are over
Friday’s game was the fourth in a row where Luis Suárez started on the bench. That’s the first time that has ever happened in an 18-year career at an elite level.
With Ángel Correa still struggling with a swollen ankle sustained against Betis, Diego Simeone opted to start Antoine Griezmann ahead of the Uruguayan. Coming only days before Old Trafford, the debate seemed to be whether Simeone would give minutes to Griezmann to build his fitness, or to Suárez to keep him active. Cholo went for Griezmann.
João Félix is in superb form, scoring inside the first seven minutes of a game for the fourth time in his last five outings, and he has nailed down a starting spot. Correa is enjoying a career-best season. Griezmann is Griezmann. This means Suárez is going to face an uphill battle to become a regular starter in the remaining two months of the season.
It would be unsurprising if Simeone did spring a surprise and field Suárez in Manchester. He’s a player for the big occasion, and few will be bigger for him on a personal level than this one, potentially his last Champions League tie.
But equally, and bizarrely, Suárez showed what he brings to Atlético from the bench against Cádiz. He failed to score, as he has in his past 14 substitute appearances, the last time he did so being his debut brace against Granada in 2020. Despite that, his harrying presence and pure ability to make a nuisance of himself unsettled the Cádiz defence.
That kind of influence, which contrasts with the less-problematic figures of Félix, Griezmann or Matheus Cunha, gives Atleti something different. It’s the kind of Diego Costa or Raúl García attitude Simeone loves to have at his disposal. He may no longer be a starter, but there’s life in the old dog yet.