Atlético Madrid booked a ticket to the Copa del Rey semi-finals as they saw off Sevilla at the Estadio Cívitas Metropolitano with a hard fought 1-0 victory courtesy of a Memphis Depay goal.
The Dutchman tapped in on 79 minutes after impressive work by Ángel Correa out wide, but the real celebration came with almost the final kick as Pablo Barrios brought down Erik Lamela deep in injury time, only for referee Jesús Gil Manzano to cancel his initial decision to award a penalty.
Here are four of the key talking points from the game.
1. The return to Cholismo
In the space of just four days, Atlético de Madrid sealed two consecutive 1-0 victories, having recorded the same scoreline only twice in the entire season before this week. It was a return to Cholismo, and strong defending in two games reminiscent of another time in the coach’s era.
It’s a positive reflection that rotations and a team not in its best form are still able to grind out results. Sevilla’s entire season depended upon progress in the Copa del Rey, but Atlético were able to wear down their opponents through a war of attrition that really put the entire squad to the test.
This was an old-school Diego Simeone display, one which demanded the very best of a tough tactical battle which was pushed to the limits by Quique Sánchez Flores’ ability to draw out a result by shutting down a game.
El Cholo is showing an ability to adapt and be flexible to get the most out of a more offensive or a more defensive approach. Having that versatility is important not only now, but will be crucial in the Champions League in the months ahead too.
2. An unexpected combination and Simeone’s plan
A collective groan rang around the Metropolitano when Simeone took off Álvaro Morata and Antoine Griezmann on 66 minutes. There was confusion and frustration at what the coach was thinking in bringing on Correa and Memphis, two men who have been struggling for form not only in recent weeks, but in recent months.
It was poetic justice for the coach that it would be a mazy run into the box from Correa to set up a one-touch finish from Memphis to give Atlético the lead. The pair were stretching the slow Sevilla defence with their movement and Memphis held the ball up well, even in the final stages when he was the focal point and outlet for the team.
So the two subs I wouldn’t have put on (at least not at expense of Griezi) combine to finally get the breakthrough. You know, I reckon Simeone might know more than me. Wild suggestion, I realise, but…— Sid Lowe (@sidlowe) January 25, 2024
1-0, Atletico (just when you thought it might escape them).
This duo has a chance to prove themselves and make a point after a difficult spell. Their fresh legs made a difference, and showed that this squad does have just enough depth to compete on all fronts. It was part of El Cholo’s plan to have that energy off the bench, and it worked.
Marcos Llorente and Pablo Barrios came on with 56 minutes on the clock and a clear intention to run down a tiring Sevilla side with their pace and their stamina. Sánchez Flores’ five substitutes had an average age of 29 and were replenishing a line-up which featured the likes of 37-year-old Sergio Ramos and 38-year-old Jesús Navas.
3. How much is Mario Hermoso worth?
One of the standout performers came in defence, where Mario Hermoso produced an outstanding display on the left of the back three. He is the one constant in the defensive unit who has consistently performed at a high level for about 12 months now, and against Sevilla, he found himself perhaps not under the most pressure defensively, but also had a crucial responsibility to bring the ball out and find a way through Sevilla’s deep block.
Hermoso responded by completing 14 passes into the final third with a 90% accuracy rate overall, including four completed long balls from eight attempts.
Hermoso’s contract is up at the end of the season, and there appears to be a stalemate in talks to extend it. The 28-year-old defender is one of the highest-paid players at the club, having arrived pre-pandemic when the club were handing out bonanza contracts left, right and centre, and he has seen many of his team-mates reduce their salaries with new deals. He, however, seems to be reluctant to take the same pay cut.
With performances like this one and interest from Spain, Italy and England, it’s easy to see why Hermoso doesn’t want to reduce his income when he’s at the peak of his career. The issue for Atlético is how far they can stretch their finances and whether they truly want to in order to retain one of Spain’s best defenders. At this point, it might be worth making a stretch.
4. The importance of a home draw
The atmosphere at the Metropolitano for the previous round against Real Madrid was impressive, but it was no one-off. Against Sevilla, a fixture arranged at less than a week’s notice, the Metropolitano was rocking once again. The reception for the team involved flares and chants an hour and a half before kick-off and the singing continued inside the stadium.
It’s fair to say that such support made a difference to push the team toward victory late on in the game. The support in recent weeks has been magnificent, and fans are clearly desperate for a shot at silverware again, having been forced to watch the 2020/21 season from home.
The semi-final draw has given Atlético arguably the toughest possible draw against Athletic Club, a side in the best form in Spain over recent weeks. The Colchoneros also got the typically-unfavourable draw of the first leg at home in the two-legged semi-final, meaning a tricky visit to San Mamés in late February for the second leg.
That puts extra pressure on the tie in early February at the Metropolitano. Atleti’s record in Bilbao in recent years has not been good, and while it will be very unlikely to be settled in the first 90 minutes, Simeone will want to take a lead to the Basque Country. If anyone knows how to win a two-legged knock-out, it’s this coach.