Atlético Madrid ensured they will finish in LaLiga’s top four this season with a convincing 3-0 win over Osasuna on Sunday afternoon, a win that sent a message to the rest of Spain as Diego Simeone’s team looked at ease.
Yannick Carrasco broke the deadlock just before half-time, with Saúl Ñíguez’s fine control and finish making two before a calm Ángel Correa added a third heading into the game’s final stages.
Here are three things we learned from the encounter.
Champions League football is secure
For much of this season, qualifying for Champions League football in 2023/24 seemed to be a prospect in real jeopardy. But with this victory over Osasuna, Atlético de Madrid guaranteed a spot in the top four by the end of the season. In midweek against Espanyol, they could guarantee a top-three finish.
It’s worth remembering that come the winter break before the World Cup, Atlético spent eight of the first 16 matchdays outside the top four. There was a real, tangible possibility that Atleti would fail to qualify for Europe’s elite competition for the first time in Diego Simeone’s reign.
The recovery since the new year has been remarkable and relied upon title-winning form. If Atleti can maintain this into 2023/24, there is every reason to believe Simeone’s side could be serious title contenders.
Simeone has revitalised the team since the break, and several key players along with it — such as Carrasco, Mario Hermoso, Nahuel Molina, and Rodrigo de Paul. He must be looking to build on that into next season. There is real optimism around the Metropolitano right now, but a strong summer is essential to continuing the momentum into the new campaign.
Before Diego Simeone Atletico Madrid had only qualified for the European Cup/Champions League eight times in the history. They've now qualified for the 11th season in a row.— Phil Kitromilides (@PhilKitro) May 21, 2023
This might have been Álvaro Morata’s last game as an Atleti starter
A forceful challenge from David García, belting into him from behind, may just be how Álvaro Morata’s season comes to an end. And with it, possibly his Atlético career.
The striker’s contract expires in 2024 and he’ll soon be entering into the final 12 months of his deal. Atleti view him as a reasonable squad option, but if Morata considers his talent worthy of a leading role, it seems negotiations may be at a stalemate. For Atleti, that means he will depart this summer if he does not put pen to paper on a contract extension.
Given Morata registered only 12 touches in his 44 minutes in action on Sunday, after seeing several chances go begging against Elche last weekend, it may not be a bad thing for Atlético to cash in on the 30-year-old. That’s even in spite of the fact that he has been prolific at times this season.
Replacing him after halftime, Ángel Correa once again staked a claim to be the starter. He scored in the 82nd minute with a smart run picked up by Antoine Griezmann, adding to the scoreline with a deft finish beyond Osasuna goalkeeper Sergio Herrera. Correa demonstrated the kind of composure Atleti have been missing from Morata in recent weeks, and it showed the link-up play that has made the Argentine so effective alongside Griezmann and others at times this season.
That may just tempt Simeone into giving Correa the nod for the final three fixtures of the season against Espanyol, Real Sociedad and Villarreal. Three tough games against challenging opponents with plenty to play for, and Morata, if fit, may be watching from the sidelines. It does not bode well for his future.
What Pablo Barrios has to do to earn a start is a mystery
With a spot in midfield seemingly up for grabs, many suspected it could be Pablo Barrios to start alongside Koke and Rodrigo de Paul on Sunday, but in the end it was Saúl who got the nod.
The number 17 produced one of his most eye-catching displays in some time, scoring a well-taken goal in the 62nd minute and hitting the post with another rifled effort from outside the box early on. It was an intriguing performance from Saúl — he offered a goal threat from the midfield three that neither Koke or Rodrigo de Paul have been able to provide all season. With this strike, he equalled the Argentine’s LaLiga return in less than half the number of minutes.
It was almost like the Saúl of old to see him dominating the pitch, winning seven of his eight attempted duels. This was only the second time this season that he has played the full 90 minutes, the first since a defeat to Cádiz in late October.
However, it does raise questions for Barrios, who played only the final six minutes of this game. At one stage he was playing regular football and starting games, but he has completed 90 minutes just once, against Arenteiro in the Copa del Rey, and played more than 60 minutes on only three other occasions. Across this season, his average number of game time per appearance is just 36 minutes and five seconds.
At age 19, the best still lies ahead for Barrios. But he must be wondering what his role in the side is. While departures are likely this summer, he does not seem to be near the starting line-up just yet, and any new arrivals would surely jump ahead of him in the pecking order. With regular football so important, some may question whether a loan move could be the best next step.