Atlético Madrid on Sunday rolled back the years to Cholismo’s golden age. Diego Simeone’s substitutions paid off as Atlético left Pamplona with a 1-0 win over Osasuna and three precious points in the bag.
Atlético held Osasuna to one shot attempt in the first half, and when the game opened up, the Rojiblancos landed their killer blow. With 16 minutes left on the clock, Saúl Ñíguez — whose previous Atleti goal came almost two years ago to the day — took down a Rodrigo de Paul long ball and beat Aitor Fernández with a razor-sharp near-post shot, handing the visitors a lead they would not relinquish (though they needed some Jan Oblak wizardry at the end just to make sure).
Let’s take a closer look at how Saúl — ever linked with the Atlético exit ramp — broke the deadlock in a vital contest at El Sadar.
Osasuna were on top at this point in the match. Just moments earlier, Diego Moreno uncorked a spinning shot from outside the penalty area that deflected off Saúl and forced Oblak into a sharp save. As you can see in the first gif above, Osasuna can smell blood in the water and are pressing very high in an attempt to win the ball back close to Oblak’s goal.
Center-forward Kiké García (#17 in red) is seen hounding Mario Hermoso, who you might not expect to make the correct decision under pressure given his proclivity for disastrous concentration errors.
But Hermoso has been in excellent form this month and has reasserted himself as a viable option in central defense with neither José Giménez nor Stefan Savić routinely available. The Spaniard releases a gorgeous cross-field pass that switches the play successfully to the right side, where Nahuel Molina is waiting for the ball.
I argue that if Hermoso doesn’t make this pass, Atlético do not win this game.
Molina plays a quick pass to his left for fellow World Cup winner de Paul, who finds himself in a sizable pocket of space. Again, this is thanks to Hermoso’s efforts in wiping out the first line of Osasuna’s intense press, which then falls apart like a house of cards.
Álvaro Morata has dragged Osasuna defender Aridane Hernández (#23 in red) into the center circle. Pressure from Jon Moncayola (#7) forces de Paul to look for the long ball instead of the shorter pass toward Morata, but thanks to Morata’s efforts, de Paul is able to break the second level of Osasuna’s press in a split second.
With a roaming Morata distracting Aridane, de Paul is able to spot Saúl sprinting into the acres of space in between midfielder Lucas Torró (#6) and right-back Moreno pushing up.
De Paul pings the long ball into the path of Saúl, who does exceptionally well to time his run, stay onside, and hold off Osasuna’s star center-back David García. Saúl chests down, lets the ball roll, and applies a confident finish — he catches Aitor moving and deposits the game’s only goal with a clean right-footed strike.
Saúl was on track to leave Atlético before, during, and after Sunday’s match. Valencia and Sevilla reportedly checked in on his situation — and had Los Che not sacked Gennaro Gattuso on Monday, Saúl might now be embarking on a new chapter at Mestalla.
Instead, Valencia’s ownership changed course (again), and Sevilla are one of many Spanish clubs that cannot fit Saúl’s salary into the payroll. So the 28-year-old will remain at Atlético at least for the remainder of the season — as will de Paul, who put in one of his best performances since moving to the Spanish capital nearly 18 months ago.
Rayo Vallecano’s win over Villarreal on Monday (thanks to a Sergio Camello goal) and Barcelona’s 2-1 victory over Real Betis on Wednesday mean Atlético can now enjoy a little breathing room in the race for the Champions League places. As de Paul noted after the game, top four is all that Atleti can realistically achieve this season, and after 19 rounds, the Rojiblancos have a three-point edge over Villarreal and Betis with a head-to-head advantage over the latter.
More immediately though, Sunday’s display has to be a confidence booster for Saúl. It was never really Atlético’s intention to bring him back once Chelsea acquired him on loan in 2021, and Simeone has not been able to fit him easily into the tactical plan (which itself has not been clear). Since Atleti are out of everything aside from LaLiga, Simeone will have to find ways to engineer competition and inspire a squad that, surprisingly, looks a bit more balanced following the January acquisitions of Memphis and Matt Doherty.
Saúl understood the assignment at El Sadar, and it will take that sort of commitment for this flawed Atlético side to make top four.