Atlético Madrid returned to Champions League action at the Estadio Cívitas Metropolitano almost a full year after that painful draw with Bayer Leverkusen, this time taking on Feyenoord. The Dutch champions gave it their all, but it was the Colchoneros who walked away with a 3-2 victory, despite going behind twice, to log their first victory in Group E.
An unfortunate deflection after a Jan Oblak save saw Mario Hermoso give the visitors an early lead, but Álvaro Morata equalised (with the help of VAR) shortly afterwards. Again Feyenoord found their way through, slicing through Atlético’s defence at the far post through Dávid Hancko, but some calamitous defending and shooting in the box allowed Antoine Griezmann to score on the stroke of half-time. In the second period, it was an early prod into the back of the net from Morata which would prove to be the winner.
Here are some of the main talking points from the match.
1. Feyenoord are no pushovers
Anyone who watched Arne Slot’s team in the Eredivisie last season may well have pointed this out already, but Feyenoord are tough opposition. They were viewed as one of the easier picks from pot one in the group stage draw at the end of August, but this game only served as a reminder of quite how tough a test the Dutch side poses.
Feyenoord remain unbeaten domestically with five wins and two draws and eased past Celtic in the opening game of their Champions League campaign. This game marked their first away fixture in the competition since 2017/18, when they were eliminated in the group stage, but they looked like a side with all the hallmarks of an experienced side in the European elite.
Credit where it’s due, Feyenoord are so so good. Makes for a great game. There’s still many twists in this game and Atleti need to come out strong in the 2nd. This will need grit and determination.— AU (@feelAtleti) October 4, 2023
Particularly in the first half, Atlético struggled to handle the intensity of their opponents. They were well-organised defensively and looked to pounce on the counter with pace. Up against a defence that included 34-year-olds César Azpilicueta and Axel Witsel, the visitors’ explosiveness was a real threat that exposed Atleti’s weaknesses and stretched gaps in the back three.
It was exactly such a manoeuvre that saw Hermoso dragged to the right to cover and being the unfortunate man to bundle the ball into his own net with the second-fastest own goal to be scored by a Spaniard in the Champions League.
Slot’s men pressed high and their movement was something that a tired Atleti side struggled to keep up with, and it was only some incisive attacking play which meant that the home side did not end up paying the price for it. Followed by an estimated 3,500 Dutch fans in the capital, Feyenoord’s support was vociferous, and such cutting edge alone may not be enough in the return fixture in late November.
2. Should we be worried about Nahuel Molina?
For the second game in a row, Nahuel Molina was one of the half-time talking points for all the wrong reasons. He failed to recover possession in either of his two tackles before the break and won only one of his two duels, struggling to handle the pace and strength of Quinten Timber bombing down the left for Feyenoord.
What was most bizarre was that, just like against Cádiz, Molina’s performance picked up significantly after half-time. Having won just one duel in the first 45, he won three out of four in the following 34 minutes before he was substituted. Just as on Sunday, he was involved right from the off of the second period, providing the cross that led to Morata’s winning goal on 47 minutes — just as he had scored inside 60 seconds of the restart only four days before.
It’s true that Molina looks exhausted. A foot injury in pre-season seems to have made a real impact on his fitness levels, as he has completed 90 minutes just three times all season. That is in addition to his subpar form, which has unsettled some given the lack of real alternatives in the right-wing-back position.
This run of form may force Simeone into considering his options. Azpilicueta has struggled here with his lack of pace and offensive skills, but Rodrigo Riquelme could be a reliable option that Simeone may turn to in the weeks ahead. The coach is loyal to his compatriot, but this is now a second game running where Molina has stood out as one of those responsible for the team going in at the break having conceded two goals.
3. Is Álvaro Morata in his best form as an Atleti player?
The rotation of attacking players available to Cholo Simeone this season is a luxury the Argentine has not been afforded very often in recent years. Following Ángel Correa’s brace against Cádiz, Simeone was able to rest the number 10 and recall Morata, who had been suspended for Sunday night’s league fixture. He lined up alongside Antoine Griezmann, seemingly the only fixture in this offensive set-up and one of only three, with Jan Oblak and Mario Hermoso, who seems to have a guaranteed place.
Morata had a superb evening, with his first goal seeing VAR award him an equaliser that was initially ruled out, having previously disallowed six of his goals for offside since the technology was introduced. His poacher’s instinct and composure were reflective of his current confidence, which seems to be sky high thanks to seven goals in eight games this season.
Morata’s having one helluva season thus far. Already well on track for a career best.— Neal (@NealGardner_) October 4, 2023
For a confidence player like Morata, such runs of form are crucial. Few at the Metropolitano will hold out much hope of him consistently producing these displays and numbers across the length of a full season. Even so, these statistics already make it his best-ever start to a season and have helped Atlético through a period in which both Correa and Memphis Depay have suffered injuries.
It is, perhaps, also a sign of Morata’s decision to stay at the club this summer. Simeone has doubted the centre-forward’s mentality at times in the past but was clearly backing the Spaniard to be his man in attack. Even with Depay and Correa competing for his spot, Morata is getting a fair crack at the whip and responding with performances to justify that decision — and the standing ovation he received in the final moments. Long may it continue.
4. Diego Simeone’s decision to drop Marcos Llorente
One of the surprises of the night was to see Marcos Llorente drop to the bench, with Rodrigo de Paul recalled to the starting line-up in his place. It was surprising for two reasons; one being that de Paul only returned to action as a substitute against Cádiz on Sunday night and was not expected to be fit enough to start quite so soon, and the other being Simeone’s call to drop a regular starter.
Llorente’s form has been a concern for a while now, but Simeone has long remained loyal to the midfielder and had even tweaked his system in the hope of getting the best out of his number 14. Llorente’s performance of late, even with several injuries meaning he had one of the leading roles, have been anonymous at best.
This was only the second time this season that Llorente has not started, having been benched for the 7-0 win over Rayo Vallecano early on in the LaLiga campaign. It seems that even Simeone’s loyalty has its limits, just as it has in the past with the likes of Saúl.
Against Feyenoord, Llorente came off the bench at half-time and was present for the second half. It was a quiet display from Llorente, who was primarily occupied with defensive duties, and while he did go under the radar, it’s unlikely to have done much to convince his coach that he should be recalled to the team for Real Sociedad’s visit on Sunday.