Atlético Madrid are back in the top four of LaLiga following an impressive 3-1 win over direct rivals Real Betis at Estadio Benito Villamarín.
João Félix grabbed a goal early, but Cristian Tello cancelled it out with a distant effort on the stroke of half-time. In the second period, Félix added a second before Thomas Lemar scored from the bench to make it 3-1 and a comfortable final few moments for the visitors.
Under pressure with so much at stake in this tight race, the Colchoneros produced the goods when it mattered. The win moves Atlético two points clear of Betis and into fourth place with 11 games to play, marking a significant moment in their season.
Here are three things we learned from the encounter.
This wasn’t the top-four clash it was billed to be
As Atlético fans, we can certainly be happy with this result and give it a great deal of importance. The performance and the three points warrant it and there can be absolutely no doubt about that.
But, we must also recognise this was not the top of the table clash that it could have been on paper.
A look at the teams before kick-off said as much. Betis lined up with 35-year-old midfielder Andrés Guardado at left-back, and even he only lasted 10 minutes before being forced off with injury.
That was one of an impressive seven changes Manuel Pellegrini made from the hosts’ Copa del Rey semi-final on Thursday night, including the absence of influential playmaker Sergio Canales through suspension. Ironically, those changes did not include in goal, where many regard Rui Silva to be a better shot-stopper than veteran Claudio Bravo, who kept his place.
Atlético had their own problems. Koke was absent (though whether he is first-choice or not remains up for debate), and Atleti were also missing Geoffrey Kondogbia and Stefan Savić who almost certainly would have started.
Before the half-hour mark, some rough tackles meant Atlético had already lost Šime Vrsaljko and Ángel Correa to injury. Fortunately, Atleti have strength in depth to replace them, but it fundamentally altered the game plan.
Fixture congestion is worse than ever before, and on this occasion, we saw two teams paying the price for it in LaLiga. Atleti had the benefit of not having featured in the Copa del Rey semi-final, and it seems likely this fact influenced Sunday’s result.
A big win for Atleti, let’s not play it down, but for the neutrals tuning in, this was far from the spectacle of quality football they may have expected from two teams vying for a top-four spot.
João Félix is taking his chance
Not long ago, it seemed Diego Simeone would start with Luis Suárez and Antoine Griezmann in attack even if they were playing in crutches. Among the changes in the past few games has been the introduction of João Félix and Correa, with the youngster notching four goals and registering an assist in his last four games.
Félix cut a frustrated figure as he trudged around the edge of the pitch following his substitution against Valencia in January, but here he was at the heart of the celebrations. If that game at the Wanda Metropolitano sparked talk of his future, this should have cemented the belief that he can fulfil his potential at Atlético Madrid.
This was a very different performance from what we’ve seen quite often from the Portugal star. Rather than floating and looking to influence play from deeper, this was more Lui Suárez-esque, operating almost as a poacher on the last man’s shoulder.
Betis’ defence was much-changed and without a recognised full-back on the left, and Félix looked to torment them. Moving around like a cat with a piece of string, he was purring and drifting, ready to pounce at the perfect moment. Just as Correa broke into the box down the right and cut back, Félix dropped off Youssouf Sabaly and pounced to tuck the ball away inside the first two minutes.
One of the major factors here was Marcos Llorente. That was never more evident than on the second goal. Just as Félix was enjoying the freedom gained through Betis’ complete lack of full-backs, Llorente was having a field day up against Aitor Ruibal down Atleti’s right side. Looking like the Llorente of last season, he bombed down the flank with pace and drive, and on Atlético’s second goal, Félix anticipated his burst of acceleration and subsequent cross to position himself perfectly while staying just onside.
“Everyone needs time, he’s doing what we asked of him and he’s added the goals and talent that we know he has,” Simeone explained post-match. “He’ll get angry with me and he’ll keep getting angry with me, but with time, he’ll appreciate it.”
Not quite the words you’d expect if he wanted him gone in the summer, are they?
Strength in depth counts
This is linked to the first thing we learned, but also explains why Atleti came out on top. We’ve heard much this season about how this Atlético Madrid squad is “the best Atlético Madrid squad ever ™”, and for one of the first instances this campaign, we’ve actually seen it count for something.
In recent weeks, we’ve seen some background figures like Héctor Herrera, Geoffrey Kondogbia, etc. come in, but haven’t had much of a threat from the usual figures injured, suspended, or blunt when brought on.
This time, it was quite the opposite. Rarely has an eight-man bench had such contrasting figures as Atlético’s selection at the Villamarín. For the huge transfer fees and world-class experience of Griezmann, Lemar, Suárez and Yannick Carrasco, there was the youth and promise of Carlos Martín, Marco Moreno and Javi Serrano.
Having lost Vrsaljko and Correa in the first 30 minutes would have been a huge blow to Atlético at many points this season, but by bringing on Carrasco and Griezmann, Atleti (on paper at least) got stronger.
Griezmann, in particular, stood out. He brought some hugely intelligent movement to Atlético’s attacking game with his assist for Lemar and a chance for himself. His move late in the first half, his pass intercepted inside the box with Bravo beaten, showed exactly the kind of influence he can have. He allowed Félix to get on the shoulder and break through by dropping deep. This was the kind of connection between the two that Simeone had initially been hoping for.
Injuries, as always, impact and even limit Atlético. But to see others come in and step up shows there may be a reason for optimism after all.