Atlético Madrid secured an important victory at Real Betis on Sunday night to end matchday 27 in LaLiga’s top four. João Félix notched a doblete for the first time in over a year to lead Atleti to a 3-1 victory, sending the Colchoneros two points clear of Betis and level with third-place Barcelona on 48 points. Based on current form, Barça and Atlético can harbor realistic ambitions of catching flatlining Sevilla (55 points) in second place by season’s end.
João Félix gave Atlético the lead less than 90 seconds into the game before an inexplicable Héctor Herrera giveaway teed up Cristian Tello to equalize deep into first half stoppage time. However, Atleti’s counterattack responded forcefully to a tiring Betis and tore through the Verdiblancos’ defense for two goals in the final half hour.
Let’s take a closer look at how João Félix completed his brace, ultimately guiding Atlético to its third straight league win.
The action culminating in João Félix’s second goal on Sunday begins with a Marcos Llorente-Rodrigo De Paul give-and-go. This looks like something that has come fresh from the Majadahonda training ground. Llorente keeps the ball in play, and Betis are caught in transition playing a high defensive line that Atlético have already punished. De Paul has all the time and space he could want as he sends a searching vertical pass into space for Llorente to chase.
Llorente loves these passes, and his severed connection with Kieran Trippier (prior to the right-back’s departure for Newcastle in January) removed a go-to element from Diego Simeone’s attacking strategy. De Paul’s dynamism and playmaking abilities were supposed offer another avenue for Atlético to attack through, but he has spent most of the season playing as a #5 when his skillset dictates he should regularly play as a #8 or even a #10.
Even though Yannick Carrasco and Antoine Griezmann have also broken forward, De Paul makes the best possible decision — deliver the through ball for Llorente, who dips out of bounds before turning on the afterburners to escape winger Aitor Ruibal’s half-hearted mark.
João Félix takes off, sprinting directly into the channel between Betis center-back Marc Bartra and right-back Youssouf Sabaly. Llorente is in full gallop at this point, easily outpacing Betis’s other central defender Víctor Ruiz.
Llorente needs only two touches to set up this goal — the first to gain that last step ahead of Ruiz, and the other to slide the ball past Bartra for João Félix. Sabaly recovers well enough to attempt a slide tackle on João, but he has already turned in Llorente’s cross with his right foot. Goalkeeper Claudio Bravo moved to his right too late, making a simple finish even simpler.
Three players combining in a nine-second span restored Atlético’s lead, and Griezmann later set up Thomas Lemar for the third goal with a similar powerful run/low cross combo.
Atlético played the counterattacking game expertly in the second half at the Villamarín. And rather than building an attack around João, Cholo Simeone is building one for him with the support of runners like Llorente, Griezmann, and Ángel Correa (who assisted the opening goal before exiting with a foot contusion). While Carrasco was not sharp on Sunday and did not play a particularly good game individually, you could see the plan shifted for the better when he entered — the Belgian still completed three dribbles and a key pass, destabilizing Betis’s weakened back line enough to bring his teammates into the play.
But João himself is “plugged in” right now. His intelligent and insistent running during last week’s win over Celta Vigo helped the team’s pressing structure immensely, and that work was rewarded with goals on Sunday. He’s scored four goals and assisted two more over the past six games.
Simeone is fond of saying that football rewards those who work at it full-tilt, and João is feasting right now. Atlético have not lost in four. In this form, the Colchoneros can finish comfortably in LaLiga’s Champions League places and can feel confident about their chances to overcome Manchester United next week in the UCL round of 16.
RBB XI Bravo; Sabaly, Bartra, Ruiz, Guardado (Tello 10’); Paul (Rodríguez 58’), Carvalho; Joaquín (Juanmi 66’), Ruibal, Fekir; Iglesias (Willian José 66’).
Goal Tello 45+5’
ATM XI Oblak; Vrsaljko (Carrasco 21’), Felipe, Giménez, Reinildo; Herrera, De Paul (Serrano 83’), Llorente, Lodi (Lemar 46’); Correa (Griezmann 27’), João Félix (Suárez 83’).
Goals João Félix 2’ 61’ Lemar 80’