Despite making it harder work than it perhaps needed to be, Atlético Madrid secured safe passage to the Copa del Rey quarter-finals by beating Segunda División side Levante 2-0 at the Estadi Ciutat de València on Wednesday night.
The win came courtesy of goals from Álvaro Morata and Marcos Llorente, both in the second half, after a balanced first half which saw Levante look more than comfortable going toe to toe with one of Spain’s biggest clubs.
Here, we take a look at three things learned from the game.
What a difference confidence makes
This was the classic tie of a struggling team with plenty of quality coming up against a flying team of average players.
Levante were unbeaten under Javi Calleja entering this game and hadn’t been beaten at home since October. They played with all the swagger of a team with those stats.
Atlético Madrid, on the other hand, struggled. The team lacked fluidity and structure and were, quite simply, all over the place. Where Levante looked comfortable floating the ball around their own backline, Atlético couldn’t keep hold of possession.
There was no clearer example of Atleti’s jitters than in the defensive line. Mario Hermoso and his lack of concentration unsettled the team at the back, which looked as makeshift as ever. Jan Oblak behind them looked just as insecure and made numerous basic errors as he came off his line, which reflected the lack of certainty ahead of him.
That defensive shakiness may have been punished by an opponent that offered more quality in attack. There was a slice of fortune that Levante’s first-half goal was ruled out as Hermoso spent too long complaining about a corner and left the marking system in chaos. Fortunately, and unbeknown to the Spanish television commentator, Jorge Figueroa Vázquez spotted a foul.
Much like previous Levante vs. Atlético meetings, one side dominated and had the better chances but ended up being finished off by a single goal on the counter. Only instead of it being Atleti left cursing their luck, this time it was Levante.
Atleti need a string of good results to rebuild confidence, and upcoming fixtures give the Rojiblancos that opportunity. Real Valladolid, Osasuna, Getafe and Celta Vigo are the next four opponents. Atleti should be aiming to reach double figures for points from this next batch of games to maintain a top four challenge.
Marcos Llorente is Atleti’s shining light
For some time now, we’ve seen signs that Llorente was getting back into the swing of things. We’ve seen flashes of him looking more like the player with whom everyone fell in love in 2020/21.
In Wednesday’s game, Llorente featured on the right of a front three, with plenty of offensive freedom and fewer defensive responsibilities. This allowed him to show his best and continue a fine run of form he has maintained ever since returning from the World Cup in Qatar.
It was his involvement that led to the first Atlético goal as he broke down the right flank and then cut the ball back to Álvaro Morata who, even by his standards, could not miss. It was the kind of spark and burst of pace and intensity that Atleti have desperately missed.
Then, in injury time, Llorente added a goal of his own. He broke through the tired Levante defensive line with the kind of desire that has been missing all too often from Atleti attackers, beating his man and applying a composed finish past Joan Femenías.
Llorente’s contribution is one that can set this team apart and provide a differential factor in the final third. He matched Antoine Griezmann with two chances created; Nahuel Molina crafted the only other chance that Atleti generated in Valencia. The Spain international also led all Atleti players in dribbles (two). With no João Félix floating in the half spaces, a wider area has opened up for Llorente to attack, and he is making the most of it.
If Atleti are to recover this season, it feels a lot like individual talents will have to drag the team forward when it fails to work as a collective unit. Few players in this squad have that ability to change a game on their own, but Marcos Llorente is one of them. If he can maintain this form, Diego Simeone could still be salvaged.
What should Atleti do with Rodrigo de Paul?
De Paul produced a tidy display against Levante, his first appearance for Atlético since being crowned a world champion. It wasn’t his best game in an Atleti shirt, and more akin to the occasion of a Copa del Rey last 16 than a World Cup final, but it was certainly far from his worst.
That is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that, surprisingly, Simeone hauled off Pablo Barrios as his first midfield change. El Cholo instead opted to give a more-substantial 79 minutes to De Paul, whereas the teenager was taken off at half-time for Ángel Correa.
0 - @rodridepaul is making his first appearance with @atletienglish in all competitions after World Cup (he missed first five Colchoneros games after the break). The midfielder was starter in all seven games played by Argentina in #Qatar2022. Muchachos. pic.twitter.com/VOJzbNyJAX— OptaJose (@OptaJose) January 18, 2023
No player completed more passes into the opponent’s half than de Paul, and he registered the highest number of passes in the entire game with 82, completing 70. He was influential in dictating the tempo for this Atleti side, in a role that has been performed by the subpar Koke in recent weeks.
Equally, de Paul was responsible defensively. He won each of his four ground duels, won his only aerial duel and both of his tackles. That could be the kind of impact that makes a difference and convinces Simeone that de Paul does have a role to play in this team.
This was most certainly not a game where de Paul gave his critics a stick with which they could beat him, but question marks remain. Despite being efficient and tidy, he didn’t excel. Some fans have it against him so much that only a match-dominating appearance will do.
Since these were his first minutes since the World Cup, it’s evident de Paul needs to prove himself if he is to ensure a future at Simeone’s Atleti. This chance gave him an opportunity and he took it, even if you could say he only did so with one hand. It’s still more than can be said for several Atlético midfielders this season.