Atlético Madrid sealed a crucial win over Real Betis on Sunday night in fine fashion — through a magnificent late goal at the death from substitute Ángel Correa.
Atleti 1-0 Betis. Ángel Correa’s late, great goal. Atleti six points clear in third; Betis three points off top four. pic.twitter.com/X6th7K40Qr— The Spanish Football Podcast (@tsf_podcast) April 2, 2023
Given Atlético’s tremendous 2023 form, this game felt like it could be decisive in the race for the top four. Heading into the tie, Atleti had the chance to move nine points clear of Betis in fifth place with a win, and six clear of Real Sociedad, which — even with 11 games to go — felt like it could be too much of a distance to recover, barring a terrible run of form from the Colchoneros.
That was exactly how it panned out, fortunately due to Correa’s decisive late strike, as he wove in and out of defenders to find a way past Rui Silva after a hard-fought previous 85 minutes had the teams level.
Here are three things we learned from the game.
Ángelito gonna Ángelito
Five of Ángel Correa’s six goals in LaLiga in 2022/23 have been goals to open the scoring in a game, and few may prove to be as important to Atlético’s season as this one. None can possibly be any better than what he achieved.
Correa cut through the Betis defence, showing a level of perseverance which is typical of him on and off the pitch, and beat three defenders before he dug the ball out from under him to fire it into the bottom corner. His passionate celebration, kissing the badge as he ran to karate kick the corner flag, showed exactly what the goal meant to him, and what it meant to Colchoneros throughout the Estadio Cívitas Metropolitano.
— Atlético Stats (@atletico_stats_) April 2, 2023
Cinco de los seis goles de Ángel Correa en este curso liguero han abierto el marcador de un partido.
Jugadores de LaLiga con más goles abrelatas:
7⃣ - Lewandowski (17)
6⃣ - Chimy Ávila (7)
6⃣ - Aspas (12)
6⃣ - Borja Iglesias (12)
5⃣ - ( ) pic.twitter.com/rFRMQBLVOp
Correa has long been labelled wrongly an impact sub. In this case, the World Cup winner not only provided the crucial late impact, but he saved Atleti from what would have been a disappointing draw that might have complicated the Champions League race. That is testament not to his ability to make things happen off the bench, but his ability as a player.
It’s true that we don’t see this kind of game-changing quality often enough from Correa, but he is one of the few players in the Atlético squad who possesses it. This was a case of creating something out of nothing to find a winning goal, and arguably only Antoine Griezmann rivals Correa’s ability to create and do the unexpected.
The real question now is whether this can extend into minutes for Correa. This match was his fifth in a row in LaLiga where he started on the bench, and while Diego Simeone did turn to him early on (with half an hour still on the clock), it was evident that Memphis Depay’s arrival has seen Correa fall further down the pecking order.
Correa has set himself up perfectly to finish the season strongly, and that could be at the very heart of setting himself up for an even better 2023/24 campaign. There is a gap in this squad for attacking talent, and Correa’s work rate and desire could see him get the nod ahead of someone like Yannick Carrasco.
Álvaro Morata got his starting chance
The international break is always a game of Russian roulette for any team. Atlético Madrid came out of it with one blow in the case of the injury to Memphis, which ruled him out of this encounter. The hamstring injury means Memphis now faces a spell on the sidelines shortly after earning a regular starting spot in the side.
The good news, so to speak, is that Álvaro Morata was ready to step up. He had three goals and an assist in his last 80 minutes off the bench over three games, and so the logic was that Memphis could have been under pressure to retain his starting place in any case. Morata had earned his shot in the XI that Cholo Simeone would put out.
No penalty given to Atleti for this challenge on Morata.— Atletico Universe (@atletiuniverse) April 2, 2023
Reminder: Atleti are the only team in La Liga without a penalty this season. pic.twitter.com/ON4WsjkoFA
Morata’s impact was perhaps more limited in a starting role relative to those recent appearances as a substitute. Where he is able to stretch defences a little more against tired legs, he found himself in a tough battle up against Luis Felipe, who produced an impressive defensive display for Real Betis.
That’s not to say that Morata was disappointing. He got himself into promising positions, and on another night would have had far more than the one shot he registered with a header from a set piece. His hold-up play was good, and he linked up well with Griezmann and wide players.
What was perhaps most promising of all was Morata’s work rate. At one point in the first half, a sloppy pass saw Morata lose possession, but far from standing still in exasperation, as we have seen so many times in the past, he chased Luiz Henrique all the way back to the corner flag of Atlético’s own half to win the throw-in.
If Morata is to accept a secondary role in this squad, and is to commit to Simeone’s project and style, he’s showing all the right signs in recent weeks. This was the clearest demonstration yet.
Thanks must go to Luis de la Fuente
If Atlético have looked better since Champions League elimination in part thanks to no longer playing a game every three days, then the effects of a two-week international break on some members of the squad are simply priceless.
Among the surprises with the squad call-ups was the decision from new Spain coach Luis de la Fuente to drop Atleti captain Koke and midfielder Marcos Llorente, while also overlooking in-form defender Mario Hermoso.
Now, Atleti are reaping the rewards. The first 15 minutes of this game in particular looked frenetic and were played at incredible pace, with Koke and Llorente among the two most influential players in setting the pace.
Little is being said about Koke’s recent performances. He has revived his usual level. pic.twitter.com/aWicSmSWUp— Atletico Universe (@atletiuniverse) April 2, 2023
Koke has been gradually getting back to his best for some time. Against Betis, he won a midfield battle playing in the deep midfield role with almost complete freedom, supported by Thomas Lemar and Marcos Llorente on either side.
Koke’s organising of the midfield and his vision on the ball were differential in pulling the strings and having Betis dragged all over the shop in the opening stages. It felt even more frustrating to see his 71st minute goal ruled out for offside given how much he deserved it, with a display that saw him win more tackles than any other player with four.
Marcos Llorente looked refreshed too, and his pace down the right was a real threat, linking up with Nahuel Molina to deadly effect against the young Juan Miranda. Most importantly, he also completely nullified Rodri and Ayoze Pérez, forcing Betis to direct almost all of their attacking down their own right flank and to Luiz Henrique.
The Spanish contingent were overlooked by the new national team coach, to his own loss (literally, against Scotland), but are proving why they should not have been. In this case, Atleti are the real winners.