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Talking points: Atlético Madrid 0-1 Athletic Club

Home advantage was not enough for Atlético.

Atletico Madrid v Athletic Club: Semi-Final - Copa del Rey Photo by Angel Martinez/Getty Images

Atlético Madrid suffered a tough blow as they fell to defeat in the first leg of the Copa del Rey semi-final against Athletic Club, being beaten 1-0 by their Basque rivals.

The goal came from Álex Berenguer, who scored with great composure from the penalty spot after Reinildo Mandava conceded a foolish spot kick for a dangerous tackle inside the box. Atleti fought to draw level but failed to do so, coming closest when they thought they had an injury-time penalty awarded, only for it to be ruled out for offside.

Here are four of the key talking points from the game.

1. There are reasons to be positive

Defeat in this game obviously feels like a major disappointment, and rightly so coming as the first home defeat in over a year, but there are still reasons for Atlético Madrid fans to be feeling at least a little optimistic about the return leg and Atleti’s chances of reaching a Copa del Rey final date in Seville.

The main reason behind that is that this match was almost one-way traffic in Atlético’s favour for the entirety. At no time did Athletic look comfortable or in control, with their few offensive moves posing a threat being rapid counter-attacks which failed to generate a huge deal of danger and Jan Oblak had it covered.

TOPSHOT-FBL-ESP-CUP-ATLETICO MADRID-ATHLETIC BILBAO Photo by JAVIER SORIANO/AFP via Getty Images

There’s also the fact that this Athletic side had enjoyed an extra 48 hours of rest and looked on the ropes towards the end. There is a long way to go until the second leg, but Atleti knew that anything less than a 2-0 defeat would demand them to score at San Mamés. That won’t be easy, but now it remains the case and avoids any miscalculation of trying to defend a narrow lead. It’s all to play for.

The stats also help to back that argument up. Athletic Club are the team who have most often lost a knock-out Copa del Rey tie between top flight teams after taking the lead in the first leg. It’s now happened on three occasions, against Real Madrid in 1970, Sporting Gijón in 1976 and Atlético themselves in 1978. Now, the Colchoneros will want to make it a fourth time at the end of February.

2. The cost of one bad decision

Reading point one without having watched the game, you might be wondering what on earth went wrong to see Atleti end up on the wrong side of the result. It came down to one moment of madness from Mr. Reliable himself, Reinildo Mandava. The Mozambican defender was recalled after being rested against Real Madrid and went on to concede a penalty which Álex Berenguer calmly put away.

There was little that Atlético could do to protest the penalty decision from Alejandro José Hernández Hernández. The challenge was a terrible one, with Reinildo almost seeming to slip as he dived in with two feet and studs up on Beñat Prados. In truth, it was fortunate for Atlético that Reinildo was not shown a straight red card for the tackle as well.

That moment will provide a huge setback to Atlético, and while there are reasons to be optimistic, it was the only real moment in the game in which Atlético let their guard down completely. Being punished so harshly for one single mistake may seem unfair, but at the semi-final stage of the Copa del Rey there is no margin for error.

From that moment on, Reinildo looked spooked. Struggling with Athletic’s high press and with his limited distribution, he was caught out by his man and his early dominance over Iñaki Williams made way for cases of him being beaten for pace and caught out of position. At half-time, it was a wise move from Diego Simeone to replace him with Mario Hermoso.

3. Diego Simeone’s best midfield three

This was also one of the rare occasions in which we have seen what seems to be Diego Simeone’s strongest midfield trio all on the field at the same time as Pablo Barrios and Rodrigo de Paul played either side of captain Koke. Barrios came into the team to replace Saúl Ñíguez, who had been a regular in recent weeks, and produced a strong performance which helped him to look at home on the big stage.

Barrios and De Paul both created four chances each and provided the creative engine to the team as it looked to get back for Athletic’s goal. Barrios was in the thick of it and did not shy away from a very physical encounter against the Basque midfield. This was another one of those games where it would be very easy to forget quite how young and inexperienced Barrios is, because he certainly didn’t look it.

FBL-ESP-CUP-ATLETICO MADRID-ATHLETIC BILBAO Photo by JAVIER SORIANO/AFP via Getty Images

In truth, this may have been one of De Paul’s best performances in an Atlético shirt. He had an incredible 110 total touches, including winning nine of 12 duels and recording two shots. His work rate was the best its ever been and his performance was a continuation of what we have seen in recent weeks as Simeone finally seems to have worked out how to get the best out of his number five.

In the holding role, Koke again looked influential, recovering possession on nine occasions and then looking to start attacks from his deep midfield role. With Barrios to his left he looked more comfortable than he has with Saúl, opening up far more to have options on both flanks with more availability.

4. The end of the winning streak at the Metropolitano

Atlético Madrid had gone 28 games unbeaten at home before this game, in a run stretching back to the 1-0 defeat to Barcelona on their way to the LALIGA title as they secured victory at the Metropolitano on January 8th, 2023. Over 12 months later, the same scoreline would cost Atleti as they were to fall to a first leg defeat against Athletic.

Even now, you would have to go back to August 2022 to find the last time that a side beat Atlético by more than a one goal margin as Villarreal pulled off the feat in one of the opening games of the 2022/23 season with a 2-0 win.

The Metropolitano has become a real fortress for Atlético Madrid as Diego Simeone has rebuilt this team with a new style. It is worth remembering quite how far the team has come in 12 months, when Simeone was still being linked with an exit as players revolted and a top four place looked in danger.

This season, home advantage has given Atleti the upper hand in the Copa del Rey against Real Madrid and Sevilla. Now, having surrendered that boost against Athletic, they will face one of the toughest places of all to go and mount a comeback: San Mamés.