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3 things learned from Atlético Madrid’s 2-1 win over Rayo Vallecano

Second place, Nahuel Molina and Jan Oblak feature.

Rayo Vallecano v Atletico de Madrid - LaLiga Santander Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Atlético Madrid continued their fine form by winning a Madrid derby as they beat Rayo Vallecano 2-1 at Vallecas on Sunday night, courtesy of a first-half double salvo.

Nahuel Molina scored on the counter before Mario Hermoso nodded home from a corner less than two minutes later, with Fran García pulling one back on 85 minutes to make it a nervy ending for the Colchoneros.

Here are three things we learned from the game.

The race for second is on

This first point is the most obvious one, but also the most important one.

When we went into the World Cup break, Atlético sat in fifth position in the table with 1.7 points per game to their name and 24 from 14 games. Fourteen games later, we can see the exact contrast. This time around, there are an additional nine points taking the tally to 33 from 14 for an average of 2.4 points per game.

Over these 14 games, only LaLiga leaders Barcelona have fared better or conceded fewer goals, while only Real Madrid have scored more. One stat in particular that stands out over that time period is Atleti’s xG against away from home, where Atleti average 0.89 per 90, some 0.12 lower than any other side in the league. That was reflected at Vallecas, as Rayo registered just 0.56 xG on Sunday.

Rayo Vallecano v Atletico de Madrid - LaLiga Santander Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

This win over Rayo served an important purpose not only to maintain that form, but also to cut the gap to second place after Real Madrid were beaten by Villarreal a little further north at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu on Saturday night. The gap between the two is now only two points. A reminder again, that gap was 11 points during the World Cup.

What’s more, the momentum is strongly in Atlético’s favour. Since the World Cup break, Real Madrid have the same points return from 14 games as Atleti did before it. Yes, that’s the form that saw people calling for Diego Simeone’s head.

Now, Real Madrid still have a Copa del Rey final to worry about and a Champions League knock-out tie against João Félix’s Chelsea distracting them. Over on Managing Madrid, Euan McTear described Real Madrid’s match against Villarreal as one that “felt a little like a pre-season friendly.” Should that theme continue in LaLiga, there’s a real chance Atleti could end the season as Barcelona’s nearest rivals.

This is the Nahuel Molina that Atleti signed

When Molina joined Atlético over the summer, he was unfairly expected to hit the ground running as the only natural right-back in the squad. It’s fair to say his first five to six months at the club were a struggle. From his needless red card against Villarreal in August to some sloppy defending thereafter, it felt as though some believed his Atleti career was over before it had even begun.

Instead, the World Cup served as a kickstart to propel him to success.

Molina’s confidence levels have skyrocketed since he won the tournament with Argentina, and he looks an assured defender who is capable of bombing down the flank and contributing to the attack.

There was no better illustration of that than his 22nd-minute goal. A rapid counterattack led by Antoine Griezmann came down the left side and passed through the middle to reach Molina on the right — almost bearing similarities to the goal which he scored for Argentina against the Netherlands in Qatar — and he converted with a cool, composed finish.

Molina celebrated by dashing immediately to the touchline to grab a “Correa 10” shirt, paying tribute to the forward who lost his mother this week. This further served to underline how he has formed an integral part of the squad, beyond just his contribution on the field.

Rayo Vallecano v Atletico de Madrid - LaLiga Santander Photo by Diego Souto/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Beyond that, Molina made a total of seven recoveries and was beaten only once in a tough battle up against Álvaro García, who is one of few out-and-out old school wingers who can give full-backs nightmares. Teaming up with Marcos Llorente, this duo was able to keep García quiet — he failed to complete a single dribble.

The few minutes Matt Doherty has had since arriving on deadline day — a total of 12 minutes in an Atleti shirt, all in one appearance off the bench against Sevilla — are testament to Molina’s current fundamental importance to Simeone. No new signing in the Simeone era has played more minutes in his first season than Molina has this year. If there were doubts about how he would adapt, he has settled the debate, and this might well have been one of his strongest performances yet.

Jan Oblak is an Atlético Madrid legend

With his 390th appearance Sunday, Oblak overtook Diego Godín as the foreign player with the most appearances for Atlético. As was the case for Godín and Atlético Madrid circa 2014, the truth is that Atlético Madrid in 2023 is a concept that simply cannot be understood without the Slovenian shotstopper.

It is perhaps ironic that Godín’s departure passed on a leadership role to Oblak. The goalkeeper has had his ups and downs, suffering through the lowest point of the team’s defensive adaptation following Godín’s departure in 2019, but he has now come out the other side.

Against Rayo, Oblak again showed his credentials as an elite keeper and continued to lead by example. Oblak made three saves, including the impressive stop shown above, and dictated the tempo when on the ball in deep positions. He also reflected the mentality of the team, keeping his cool even as the goals flooded in.

Oblak was caught out somewhat for Fran García’s late consolation goal, but he was caught blind by a noncommittal Stefan Savić on the edge of the box and was unable to reposition quickly enough. He didn’t hide his anger at his colleague and close friend, either.

Oblak’s future remains a little bit of a mystery. Reports from last year that he extended his contract do not correlate to others, and the club never made an official announcement. There is also just an element of doubt over whether Oblak, having turned 30 this year, could be tempted by Premier League riches and one final shot at a big contract in an elite league.

But there can be no doubting that for much of his time at Atlético, Oblak has been one of the world’s best players, and arguably the best goalkeeper to play the sport over much of that time period. The Slovenian is one of the most influential players in Cholo Simeone’s squad both on and off the field, but the coach has a task on his hands to help him to continue breaking records. With clean sheets in 236 of his 390 games — nearly 61 percent of his appearances — Oblak’s work simply cannot be lauded enough.