Atlético Madrid fell to a fifth defeat of the season, as they were beaten by Girona at Montilivi in a thrilling 4-3 loss to the joint-leaders of LALIGA.
The game got off to a nightmare start as Valery Fernández scored on just two minutes. Álvaro Morata hit one back but Sávio and Daley Blind made it 3-1 to give Girona the driving seat and ensure that they remained in full control. Morata’s second on the stroke of half-time proved important as he equalised shortly after the break, but Iván Martín scored an injury-time winner to give Girona the victory.
Here are four talking points from the game.
1. Another pathetic away performance
For a fourth consecutive outing, Atlético de Madrid suffered defeat on the road, following losses to Las Palmas, Barcelona and Athletic Club. It’s an ongoing trend which is of increasing concern as the business end of the season comes around.
If LALIGA’s table was made up only of home results, Atlético would be three points clear at the top of the rankings. If it was made up of only away fixtures, Atleti would sit seventh, level on points with Osasuna and Las Palmas. With five defeats on the road, Atleti have the same number as the other five teams that make up the top six combined.
❌️ 1-2 vs Las Palmas— Matthew Clark (@MattClark_08) January 3, 2024
❌️ 0-1 vs Barça
❌️ 0-2 vs Athletic
❌️ 3-4 vs Girona
Atleti have lost their last four LaLiga away games.
You've got to feel for Álvaro Morata. pic.twitter.com/aFKoeXWQo1
Once again, it was a slow start that cost Los Colchoneros. The positive was that Atleti did fight back, there was an effort and commitment and against many teams, that might have been enough to take at least a point. But the slow start proved costly.
That makes the coming weeks daunting. This weekend will see a potential banana skin with a Copa del Rey trip to Lugo from Primera RFEF, before a game in Saudi Arabia against Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup. Following that, a visit to lowly Granada should be winnable, but then there are three tricky away ties against Real Madrid, Sevilla and Inter Milan in the Champions League.
2. Álvaro Morata is one of Europe’s best strikers this season
Amid all the negatives of this defeat, it must be said that the performance of Álvaro Morata should be good enough to secure a victory 99 times out of 100. The striker was that good. His hat-trick was his first in Atlético shirt and his first for any club since 2017, when he scored three for Chelsea against Stoke City.
Remarkably, Morata could even have had more. In addition to scoring three, he missed three big chances. He actually missed his three of his four highest xG shots, scoring with his two most difficult chances. It was pure Morata. But his goals were all well-taken, with some excellent finishing — especially his second goal of the night — which we have come to expect from Morata this season.
Morata also won eight duels, won three free-kicks and won his only tackle of the game. Morata was a nuisance in the final third and looked confident throughout, contributing all over the field. He’s providing the target man that Atleti need in the final third to provide an outlet.
17 goals for Álvaro Morata between LALIGA and the UCL (12+5). Half the season still to play.— The Spanish Football Podcast (@tsf_podcast) January 3, 2024
With 17 goals, this has already become Morata’s best season in an Atleti shirt and that’s while he has only played 24 games to date this campaign. His previous best was 16 in 45 games in 2019/20. Few in Europe can compete, but Morata is not getting the recognition that you might expect.
3. A terrible performance from Koke
If one man carried the blame for this defeat it was the captain, Koke. It was his woeful error that allowed Girona to go 2-1 up in the first half, as he was slow and lethargic to lose possession on the edge of his own box on 26 minutes. Once again, he struggled with a high press applying intense pressure on him, which is nothing new this season.
Again, Koke didn’t cover himself in glory in injury time as he stood and watched Iván Martín go past him to fire int the top corner. It was the latest indication that Koke struggles physically to last the full 90 minutes in such high-intensity fixtures like this one, and on this occasion, with a real rarity, he cost the team dearly.
So poor from Atletico Madrid on that winner.— Michael (@LaLigaMichael) January 3, 2024
4 players surrounding Ivan Martín, none could stop him.
Koke looked especially checked out.
Match of the season in Girona, guys??
But, there are elements to suggest that it wasn’t all Koke’s fault. He misplaced only one pass in the full 90 minutes from 67 attempts, he created one big chance with an expected assist rating of 0.37, he won his only tackle, he recovered the ball six times and won both of his aerial duels.
Equally, many of the issues that have been highlighted are not entirely down to him. Sure, he could’ve done better in injury time to put his foot in, but why did Diego Simeone leave him on and take off Rodrigo de Paul, who looked in much better shape? Sure, he lost possession deep in the holding role, but why did the club not sign the holding midfielder that Simeone requested in the summer in order to play Koke in his best position?
4. What does this mean for a title race?
For Atlético, quite simply, it’s over. We have seen such quality from this team in fits and bursts this season, and it’s beyond frustrating to see that five defeats have thrown away any shot at the title this early in the new year. Only the top two have won more games this season, but the number of defeats is the same as Getafe in eighth place. There is no longer a shot at finishing first.
But there is more cause for concern looking the other way. Should Barcelona win against Las Palmas and Athletic Club beat Sevilla on Thursday night, Atleti could hit the halfway point of the season outside the top four. That’s despite playing some incredible football for 14 of their 19 games in LALIGA to date this season.
For LALIGA on a wider scale, that might even be good news. Girona remain level with Real Madrid on points at the top of the league table, but there’s a 10-point gap behind them. It now seems to be a title race of two teams fighting it out, even if it is refreshing for neutrals to see that it’s not the Clásico duo dominating. There will always be a feeling of what could have been in the red and white half of Madrid.
For Atleti, though, the focus may now shift slightly. This team has shown that they can produce the goods and beat any team on their day. As such, the Copa del Rey and Champions League should be real targets. By the end of this season it’ll be three years since Atleti last tasted silverware, the LALIGA title in 2020/21, and Colchoneros are hungry for more. Whether the players are or not will determine whether there is any.