Atlético Madrid qualified for the last 16 of the Copa del Rey by securing a 3-1 win over Primera RFEF side Lugo, despite the nerves kicking in as the scoreline was level at half-time and into the second half.
It looked to be the ideal start when Ángel Correa finished from close range on two minutes, but Leandro Antonetti equalised just before half-time as he beat Çaglar Söyüncü for strength and finished beyond Jan Oblak. In the second period, with reinforcements, Memphis Depay got two goals on 66 and 74 minutes to ensure that the Colchoneros were the side to progress.
Here are four of the talking points from the game.
1. Could this be the best chance of silverware?
Without a trophy since winning LALIGA in 2021, Diego Simeone will be wanting to add to the cabinet at the Cívitas Metropolitano this year. He knows that one of his best chances of doing so will be in the Copa del Rey, where Lugo were beatable opposition.
The starting line-up selected included seven changes to the side that lost to Girona, but Simeone opted not to give minutes to B team and youth players, as in previous years. In fact, with the scoreline level at half-time, he didn’t take any risks and turned to Rodrigo de Paul, Koke and Antoine Griezmann rather than the likes of Aitor Gismera or Marco Moreno from the academy.
The progression of other top-flight sides in the competition means there will be no easy road to the final of the Copa del Rey, but winning this tie means that Atleti are already into the last 16. Only Tenerife have qualified for that round from outside Primera at the time of writing, but Atleti will hope that putting out a strong team will give them a chance of success.
2. Can Memphis salvage his Atleti career?
With no goals since August and having failed to make any kind of positive impact in his nine appearances since returning from injury in November, Memphis’s critics had plenty of fuel for their fire heading into this game. Given only his second start since August, this was a real opportunity for the Dutchman to show what he can offer.
As is always the case for Memphis, he was certainly not short on confidence and recorded a total of six shots, including one rather-ambitious attempt around the hour mark from 25 yards out. Of those, he scored with both of his two shots on target, had two go narrowly wide, one high and wide and one was blocked.
⚽️ ¡OOOTRO DE MEMPHIS!— RFEF (@rfef) January 6, 2024
Anota el tercero el conjunto visitante y toma ventaja en el encuentro.
@CDeportivoLugo - @Atleti I 1-3 I 74'
ℹ️ Minuto a Minuto: https://t.co/kvSPH6QpJE#CopaDelRey I #LaCopaMola pic.twitter.com/gemQSpExJa
Simeone praised the forward post-match, saying, “the two goals are very important. Memphis lives on goals. We need him. And we need him to be good. He has a great level.” Providing that competition for Álvaro Morata, particularly as Correa continues to struggle (two goals from his past 16 games), will be crucial to how the rest of this season goes.
3. Why have we seen so little of Javi Galán?
If there was one other player who had more eyes on him than usual, it was Javi Galán. The 29-year-old full-back had not played since a substitute appearance in the defeat to Las Palmas in early November. This was only his second start in an Atlético shirt, his first since being hauled off at half-time against Celtic in October, and his first full 90 minutes.
Galán claimed an assist as he set up Correa for his first goal, creating one other chance, and he also led the game in dribbles recording a match-high of three completed dribbles. He completed 92 percent of his passes, including all three attempted long balls that helped to progress the team forward effectively.
Like Memphis, his display earned special praise from Simeone post-match. “When I review the match I will evaluate the individual performance of each player, but today I congratulated Galán for his impetus and desire,” the coach said. “These are the players we need, players who have rebelliousness, who get angry, who play with desire, who make mistakes but who want to compete.” That’s the kind of talk that suggests he could have earned a place back in his coach’s thinking.
4. Could Axel Witsel be the midfield solution?
Rotation was expected in the line-up that Simeone set out in Lugo, but one of the surprises was the decision to select Axel Witsel in the holding midfield role. It may be the role he has played in for most of his career, but Witsel will turn 35 this week and has played 93% of available minutes for the club this season. If anyone needs a rest, it’s probably the Belgian.
Even so, he dictated the game well from the number five role. Granted, he didn’t come under a great deal of pressure from Lugo for much of the game, but he still completed more passes than anyone else on the field with 76 and a 93% accuracy, winning seven of nine duels and recovering possession on seven occasions.
Es un partido para sacar pocas conclusiones, pero lo de Axel Witsel como mediocentro debería ser algo a tomar muy en cuenta más a menudo. Ha cumplido siempre cuando Simeone le ha probado ahí.— Pascual Ruiz Arnal (@pascualruizar) January 6, 2024
The other point here to keep in mind was the display of Saúl. It’s no surprise that he once again disappointed, the latest in a long string of failures. Completing only 79% of his passes puts him as the lowest pass completion rate of any outfield player, but more concerning was how spectacularly dangerous some of those misplaced passes deep in his own half were.