It got off to a dream start for Atleti when Antoine Griezmann poked home on six minutes, and from there on out the home side showed the composure and dominance that was present in the reverse fixture — only with the cutting edge to finish off the tie this time. That came courtesy of Samuel Lino, who added a second with a powerful volley early in the second half to ensure that Atleti topped their Champions League group.
Here are four of the major talking points from the game.
1. Winning the group for the first time in 7 years
In the build-up to this tie, some questioned how much was really at stake. They played it down as a meaningless game for Atleti, and one where resting key players might be worth considering.
It was clear from the off that Diego Simeone and many at Atlético did not agree with that perspective. Simeone put out a strong side, albeit without Álvaro Morata or Koke, but featuring few other major rotations to the team.
A draw would have been enough to secure top spot, but Atleti set out like a team that needed three points. Griezmann’s early goal was a fine reward for an intense start where there was no sign of the Colchoneros letting up. If Lazio thought they might face a side still rattled by the last-gasp equaliser in September’s reverse fixture, they couldn’t have been more mistaken.
This is the first time since 2016/17 that Atlético have finished top of their group, and that will mean an advantage in the next round as they will be seeded in the draw. Misfortune could still strike, but Atleti will avoid some of the more challenging round of 16 ties that they have faced in recent years — and a run through the tournament suddenly feels a little more likely.
That’s not only because the team finished top. In addition, only Manchester City scored more than Atleti’s 17 goals in the six group games, and the Colchoneros made it three wins from three on home turf — and 20 in a row in all competitions, tying a club record. The Estadio Cívitas Metropolitano is a very tough place to come for any opponent.
2. Who to play in attack
One of the few changes in the team was to rest Álvaro Morata in the front line and instead replace him with Ángel Correa, who continues to struggle for form. The little Argentine led the line with energy and worked hard throughout, but little fell his way. In 63 minutes, he registered only one shot which went well wide of the target from the edge of the box and summed up the frustration of his time on the field.
There was some surprise when Griezmann was taken off at half-time, seemingly without any injury forcing the change. That’s a rare occurrence to see the Frenchman hauled off early on, especially without the end result being wrapped up. Even so, it seemed to be a rare case of Simeone taking his eye off the current game to think about the next one.
Champions League top scorers so far this season:— Sam Leveridge (@samleveridge) December 13, 2023
- 5 pic.twitter.com/ly6LAZCpRT
Replacing Griezmann was Memphis Depay, the man who produced an embarrassingly-poor cameo appearance against Almería at the weekend. The Dutchman didn’t improve on it much against Lazio. His movement and stamina meant that he looked the most tired player on the field despite having warmed the bench for the first 45 minutes. His drop-off since injury, and the tenth of time it’s taking him to return, is a growing concern.
Then, we completed the pack with the introduction of Morata, who missed a golden chance to add to his five goals so far this season. The group stage ends with Griezmann and Morata level on five goals each in the Champions League this season, and only Erling Haaland and Rasmus Højlund can match those figures. Not bad going for a team that struggled for goals last season.
3. Axel Witsel back in midfield
Cholo Simeone has been adamant this season that Axel Witsel is no longer a central midfielder, and that his future lies firmly in the defensive role which has got the best out of him. Yet, perhaps more out of necessity than anything else, we saw Witsel return to a holding midfield role with Saúl Ñíguez and Rodrigo de Paul starting either side of him on Wednesday.
It was an unusual experiment to see him back there, but Lazio were also one of the few teams that Simeone could perhaps get away with doing it against. They offered little in terms of pace to really expose his defensive weaknesses.
On the ball, Witsel maintained the composure and assuredness in possession that has helped him earn a regular starting role this season. He completed 92% of his passes, including all three passes into the final third and his three long balls.
With Reinildo, Josema Giménez and Stefan Savić now fully fit and back in action, could this be an option for Simeone to cover for the absence of young Pablo Barrios? It seems inevitable that the number five Simeone didn’t get in the summer will arrive in January, but Witsel may be the short-term plaster that could help cover for Barrios’ injury.
4. Samuel Lino is an upgrade on Yannick Carrasco
Do you remember Yannick Carrasco? The man who may of us thought was one of Atleti’s star players last season? The guy who we were sad to see depart after the close of the summer transfer window? The winger who we thought was the perfect fit for the left-wing-back role down the flank?
Well, the reason that you don’t is because of Samuel Lino. He claimed both an assist for Griezmann’s opening goal and then scored one himself in the second half, leaving no doubt over who the MVP of the game was. He created more chances than anyone else on the field, and more dribbles too.
Literally a superstar. Here to stay. Samuel Lino. The next big thing. pic.twitter.com/D591BF4JuV— AU (@feelAtleti) December 13, 2023
The 23-year-old Brazilian’s development has been very promising, and he seems to come alive on these big European nights in the Champions League. Against Celtic, he was also assisting (twice) and scoring. It’s a good habit to get into, and this season’s campaign will give him more opportunities to continue to do that.
What’s more, Lino is not alone. He’s competing with Rodrigo Riquelme, the other makeshift wing-back who won the man of the match award in the team’s last Champions League game as Atleti beat Feyenoord. The future is bright.