Atlético Madrid have wrapped up their pre-season schedule with a fourth consecutive win, this time beating Juventus 4-0 in a convincing victory that sets up the Colchoneros very well for LaLiga’s return in eight days’ time.
The opening goal came after some magnificent work from João Félix down the left, which set up Álvaro Morata to open his account for the evening.
In the only disappointment of the evening, Wojciech Szczęsny denied João from the penalty spot after a Saúl cross was blocked by Alex Sandro’s arm, but Morata popped up again with a second goal shortly after.
In the second half, Morata added a third with a glancing header from a Thomas Lemar free-kick. And as the substitutions kicked in, Matheus Cunha got a goal with one of the game’s last kicks as he scrambled the ball across the line from a Geoffrey Kondogbia assist.
Here are three things we learned:
Álvaro Morata will win the Ballon d’Or
A hat-trick! A hat-trick!!!
Okay, this was a friendly. But in LaLiga, Atlético Madrid haven’t seen a player score a hat-trick since Antoine Griezmann scored two, three days apart, back in February 2018.
Sure, you can say we’re getting carried away to say he’ll win the Ballon d’Or (and you could even be right). But Morata has been very promising in this pre-season campaign, and the game against Juventus was his best yet.
Whereas in 2019/20 his connection with João Félix never quite clicked, this pre-season it’s looked as though two old friends have been re-united. Their link-up play and movement has been essential, opening up new spaces in the kind of areas where Morata is most deadly.
Something else notable is Morata’s technical ability. At times his finishing has let him down in the past, or his technique when given half a yard of space. But against Juve, he was at his best in both of these scenarios.
His second goal in particular showed impressive technique, where he cut back and fired beyond Szczęsny with aplomb. It’s the cutting edge so often missing from Griezmann or a fading Luis Suárez last season. That kind of poacher in the box is what Diego Simeone needs.
It was ironic that this performance, and these three goals, came up against a team who have been chasing Morata all summer after he spent the past two seasons there. It now seems almost certain that the 29-year-old will remain at Atlético Madrid — but it’s now up to him to establish himself as first-choice.
And just in case he was beginning to get a little too confident, Matheus Cunha popped up with a poacher’s finish of his own at the very end of the game.
There’s serious competition for places within this squad.
Could Saúl be a starter?
There can be little questioning the fact that Yannick Carrasco is the first-choice option down the left flank. But, if he’s not fully fit, Saúl Ñíguez has certainly staked his claim to be the next-best solution in the left-wing-back role.
The Spaniard appeared to have a strong connection alongside Félix ahead of him, and with Lemar in the more-central role on the left of the midfield three.
The overlapping runs and deep support Saúl offered the Portuguese prodigy was almost reminiscent of the successful Kieran Trippier-Marcos Llorente link-up on the right during the 2020/21 season. Saúl’s stamina and athleticism help him do the dirty work and give increased offensive freedom to the forward.
Saúl has not quite yet settled back into the squad well enough to establish himself in a fixed position. Part of his reasoning for leaving the club 12 months ago was a desire to play in a central midfield role, yet this pre-season he has predominantly played as a left-wing-back.
Simeone clearly feels he can get the best out of Saúl in that position, and his performances there would seem to suggest that he is right. It’s now up to the player himself to decide whether that is a switch he wants to make, and whether he’s willing to rise to the challenge.
If he takes it up, Saúl would appear ahead of Renan Lodi in the pecking order. If he doesn’t, the 27-year-old will be heading to the back of the queue of a long list of midfielders — which would surely see him head toward the exit door.
Atleti need a penalty-taker
It may not be too much of a worry today, but João Félix’s 40th-minute missed penalty was a reminder that Atlético do not have a designated penalty-taker.
Toward the end of last season, it was Carrasco who stepped up at the death against Espanyol and converted in a key game. He also won May’s derby against Real Madrid with a first-half spot kick.
The issue is that, of the current squad, several players have taken penalties for the team, but none has ever been an established, reliable first-choice taker.
Félix, Griezmann, Saúl, Carrasco and Morata have all taken penalties, but all have missed at least one and none have reached double figures for attempts.
This Rojiblancos side is not one blessed with leaders, particularly in attack, and the personality of this squad is one which has been questioned many times in the past. No longer are there the cojones of players like Suárez, Fernando Torres, or Diego Costa, who would step up and gamble on a penalty. Félix, Morata, Cunha, and co. may have even more talent, but they do not have the same personalities.
Simeone has rarely had an established first choice spot-kick taker during his time in charge, but giving the responsibility to a specific player and allowing them to train and thrive may be the solution. Otherwise, a Russian roulette according to whichever player is most up for it at the moment could increase the stakes unnecessarily at a crucial point in the season.