Mario Hermoso gave Atlético an early lead, but Antonio Rüdiger and Ferland Mendy put Real Madrid back in front. Antoine Griezmann then drew Atleti back level, and a Rüdiger own goal put the Rojiblancos in the lead until Dani Carvajal scored a late leveller. In extra-time, fatigue set in, and it was Los Blancos who broke away through a Stefan Savić own goal and a Brahim Díaz finish into an empty net with the final kick.
Here are four of the key talking points from the game.
1. Remembering what should be the number one talking point - Antoine Griezmann
The real crime (excluding Savić’s defending) that took place in Saudi Arabia was that a frustrating defeat distracted from Antoine Griezmann writing himself into the history books as Atlético de Madrid’s all-time leading goalscorer with 174 goals, ahead of Luis Aragonés.
❤️ ANTOINE GRIEZMANN BECOMES ATLETI'S ALL-TIME TOP SCORER pic.twitter.com/VA5qfLgsUH— Atlético de Madrid (@atletienglish) January 10, 2024
The Frenchman achieved the record with his usual elegance and style via a powerful finish from outside the box to draw the tie level, once again saving his team. The moment meant a lot to him, evidently, and it was a shame that he was surrounded by fans in white jerseys as he ran to the corner flag. Even so, he saved the match ball and threw it to the bench to protect and preserve an all-time moment for the club.
The disappointment of a narrow, and perhaps unfair, defeat, overshadowed the occasion somewhat, but it was a truly historic moment for Atlético Madrid and for Griezmann himself. His exit to FC Barcelona has been consigned to the past, and he is fully focused on leading this team and breaking more and more records.
With the strike, Griezmann took his tally to 17 goals for the season and overtook his return of 16 goals last season — despite only having made 25 appearances compared to 48 last year. He’s on track for his best goalscoring season yet, at the age of 32, and is giving Atleti fans a reason to be positive.
2. The sooner Stefan Savić departs, the better
It says a lot about this game that Jan Oblak was arguably the strongest candidate for the man of the match award despite conceding five goals. That’s probably because there was little he could do about three of the goals as he was sabotaged by one of his own defenders.
First, Savić left Rüdiger unmarked as he lost his man at a set piece, then he positioned himself poorly as Mendy of all people appeared in the box, before he later went on to deflect Joselu’s header past Oblak to give Real Madrid the lead in extra-time.
Atleti’s management have completely ignored CBs for years and this is what they get in return.— EiF (@EiFSoccer) January 10, 2024
Gimenez is injury prone and well past his best. Savic is a disaster. Azpi is a rotational piece. Hermoso is fantastic on the ball, but falls short defensively.
They should be alarmed…
Savić won only 40% of his duels and was dribbled past twice, conceding four fouls as well. Once again, as has been the tendency for some time now, the Monetenegrin looked out of his depth. He failed to offer the defensive protection that Atlético demand.
It does raise questions as to why Simeone does not trust César Azpilicueta more. The veteran has been reliable, if unspectacular, since his arrival in the summer. He was once again left on the bench to emerge as an extra-time substitute, but would be the most likely replacement on the right of the back three. Savić may be El Cholo’s trusted soldier, but his best days are long gone.
3. The use of Javi Galán to make a point
Changes were needed in extra-time, with Koke dead on his feet, Saúl already off exhausted, and Rodrigo de Paul and Marcos Llorente visibly tiring. Axel Witsel and Rodrigo Riquelme came in, but there was still a need for another midfielder, and Simeone didn’t have one. Pablo Barrios is still not fully fit, and the alternatives are only youth team players, with the coach still not having been given the number five he requested in the summer.
The solution he turned to was Javi Galán. The coach praised him heavily after his display against Lugo at the weekend and his energy was welcomed in midfield, but it seemed a clear message: Atleti need a midfielder.
Now deep into the January transfer window, there are still yet to be any strong links to a central midfielder to strengthen the ranks. Guido Rodríguez has been linked with a summer move, but that will involve a six-month wait and Atleti can’t afford to delay.
The Colchoneros were in this tie and on top when they were bossing the midfield battle. The issues came as the starters tired and Simeone had to opt for veteran Witsel, the inexperienced Riquelme and the out-of-position Galán. On the other side, Carlo Ancelotti brought on Eduardo Camavinga, Toni Kroos, Dani Ceballos and Arda Güler. That difference in depth ultimately told.
4. Saudi Arabian support
After missing out on being involved in the 2023 Spanish Super Cup, it was almost easy to forget what a farce the competition has become since Luis Rubiales and the Spanish Federation took it to a final-four format in Saudi Arabia. Granted, Atlético would not have qualified in the previous format, but it seems unlikely that anyone would have complained about having one game fewer this season with a limited squad.
The stands were packed, albeit to the limited capacity of under 24,000 fans )which is less than half of Atleti’s lowest attendance at the Metropolitano at any game this season). And they were packed with mostly Real Madrid fans. They did not hold back either, whistling and booing Atleti as early as the warm-ups.
️ Diego Simeone: “I loved the support of the local fans; they were very close, and it’s great for us to come to Saudi Arabia to gain more supporters. It makes me very happy.” pic.twitter.com/fFf1hK2eM9— Atletico Universe (@atletiuniverse) January 10, 2024
Diego Simeone ironically alluded to “how close we felt the fans”, thanking them for their “incredible support” in his post-match press conference. When games as tight as this one go to the full 120 minutes, the backing of fans really can make a difference. In this case, it benefited Real Madrid despite the “neutral” venue.
Sure, that’s not Madrid’s fault. The issue is the chronic and age-old problem of Spanish football, structurally built to prop up the two Clásico clubs above all others. Atleti could, and should, do more to grow internationally, impacting audiences like Saudi Arabia, particularly through the Riyadh Air sponsorship. But for now, they are still playing catch-up.