Atlético Madrid extended their unbeaten run to 13 games on Sunday as they overcame Almería in a game that involved some superb offensive football and a very nervy ending, with the relegation battlers putting in a real fight at the Estadio Cívitas Metropolitano.
Antoine Griezmann scored early on from a corner, but former Colchonero Léo Baptistão equalised before half-time as he pounced on a wayward back pass from Ángel Correa, reacting quicker than Axel Witsel and then getting a fortunately-deflected finish. The winner would eventually prove to be another Griezmann goal, this time coming after it was initially ruled out for an offside in the build-up.
Here are three things we learned from the game.
Antoine Griezmann is LaLiga’s best player this season
Once again, Griezmann came to Atlético’s rescue. This time, it was in unusual circumstances, but the World Cup winner stepped up to lead his team to a sixth win in a row.
Griezmann opened the scoring with a header (his first such goal in LaLiga since October 2021) before later adding a second, in more of a trademark goal from the number eight, just before the halftime break. The Frenchman’s brace against Almería saw him draw level with Francisco Campos as the fourth-highest goalscorer in Atlético history on 153 goals, with Campos’s coming in a 10-year spell between 1938 and 1948. Now, Griezmann will be aiming for Luis Aragonés’ record of 172.
18 - Antoine Griezmann has won more points for his team with his goal involvements than any other player in LaLiga this season (18 points - 11 goals and 8 assists). MVP. pic.twitter.com/3bj4Ikq39O— OptaJose (@OptaJose) April 16, 2023
At 32, Griezmann seems fitter and more reliable than ever. His rounded game saw him recover possession four times, in addition to creating three chances and attempting eight shots, with two finding the back of the net and one hitting the woodwork. His influence is immense.
It would be a real struggle to think of a single competitor of Griezmann’s who has been able to maintain such a high level for such a prolonged spell this season. Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema or FC Barcelona’s Robert Lewandowski have earned their plaudits for their prolific goalscoring, but both have been inconsistent this season and failed to perform with such regularity.
That’s exactly what Griezmann has been able to offer Atlético Madrid week in and week out, thus opening a debate on whether he is actually LaLiga’s best player this season. His all-round game and contribution to Atlético’s form and recovery this season cannot be understated.
Koke-dependencia and playing twice in one week
Atlético began to tire in the final 10 to 15 minutes of this game, and it felt a little like the midweek trip to Turkey to play Beşiktaş could have been coming back to bite some tired legs in the squad. Yannick Carrasco, who had looked electric down the left flank, became almost non-existent with his runs down the flank ending before they even began.
And a large part of that switch in momentum, from clear Atlético dominance to Almería really hoping to find an equaliser, has to do with Koke. The Atlético captain was once again imperious in the middle, but as is so often the case, the rest of the team seems to follow his lead in terms of performance level.
Fortunately, Koke has been in superb form, but it’s also a concern as his fitness levels regularly begin to fade after around 75 minutes. And the issue is that right now, and in particular over the last few weeks, there is nobody who can replace or cover him, because he has a unique role in this Atlético team.
Pablo Barrios and Saúl Ñíguez, albeit very late on, were thrown on to try to add stability in the middle after Llorente and Rodrigo de Paul came off. But no one really gave much cover to Koke. The current system gives him an almost independent role in the middle, with one of the back three often stepping up alongside him in possession.
Unfortunately, Koke is left exposed at times in this central role, and it’s taking its toll on his fitness. When he’s tolling late on in games, he’s facing that battle almost single-handedly. Opponents such as Almería and Rayo Vallecano last weekend are able to turn games on their head thanks to the midfield battle.
I know it looks like Atleti have held on to a tight result but on another day they score like 7 goals with how much they've created— La Liga Systems (@janufooty) April 16, 2023
They actually have a lot of matches like this, this year
Atlético Madrid continue to rely upon their captain and have few alternatives, but what was telling on this occasion was Cholo Simeone’s use of the bench. The swap involving Ángel Correa and Álvaro Morata, who struggled to catch up with the rhythm of the game, was the only one to take place before the 75th minute. Saúl didn’t even come on until the dying moments of stoppage time.
Thomas Lemar and Geoffrey Kondogbia were both left on the substitutes bench, even though Lemar warmed up extensively. Kondogbia, on the other hand, was barely seen getting out of his seat until his dissent against referee Isidro Diaz de Mera earned him a yellow card.
Speaking of the referee...
The worst refereeing decision went unnoticed
Referee Isidro Diaz de Mera was in the headlines for all the wrong reasons after this game, not helped at all by José Luis González González on VAR duties.
First of all, the pair missed a clear handball that would have seen Atlético awarded a penalty 32 LaLiga matches after their last, but they then also made a mess of a bungled offside call that could have led to an 89th-minute Almería penalty.
“This time the VAR favoured us. ... I still think it’s fairer because there was a play before Griezmann’s goal that wasn’t offside and they called offside,” Diego Simeone said post-match. “Griezmann’s goal was called offside and it wasn’t offside. And in the last play, when it looked like a penalty, it was offside and they didn’t call it. So I think it also helps the chances of mistakes that the linesman on the right always missed. But well, VAR can help, and I think it’s much fairer for everyone. Obviously, today it was in our favour, and tomorrow it might be against us.”
However, not all of Simeone’s press conference was so neutral and he went uncharacteristically direct in his criticism of what seemed to be a clear handball by Samu García early in the second half.
“I don’t know what to tell you, honestly there are times when you are speechless,” he said about that call.
But the worst, and ultimately most damaging, decision may well have been the call to show Marcos Llorente a yellow card in the second half as he tracked back and seemingly made almost no contact with Álex Centelles. It was Llorente’s first foul of the game, and he was booked for it.
Marcos Llorente will miss Atletico Madrid's trip to Barcelona after picking up a fifth La Liga booking of 2022/23 vs Almeria pic.twitter.com/pljGxkHRHJ— Football España (@footballespana_) April 16, 2023
The damage lies in that Llorente will now be unavailable for next week’s trip to Camp Nou Spotify to face Barcelona. Atlético have little left to play for this season, but this trip to Catalonia is seen as the one that could decide if Atleti could push on to break into the top two.
Going there without an in-form Llorente will have a huge impact on Simeone’s team. His link-up play with Nahuel Molina down the right was once again crucial against Almería, and losing that both offensively and defensively ahead of facing the league leaders is a real blow.