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Atlético stumble in first hurdle of brutal February

A season-defining month for Los Rojiblancos, and it’s not off to a good start.

Atletico Madrid v Athletic Club: Semi-Final - Copa del Rey Photo by Maria de Gracia Jiménez/Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images

Atlético Madrid picked a really bad time to have “one of those days.”

The ball just would not go in on Wednesday night, when Atlético huffed and puffed and did nearly everything it could to break down Athletic Club’s defensive wall. Athletic hardly had an opportunity but did not miss the one it got — Beñat Prados won a penalty midway through the first half, cut down just inside the area by Reinildo Mandava’s two-footed lunge, and Álex Berenguer converted it. The Basques held on for a precious 1-0 win in the first leg of this Copa del Rey semifinal, condemning Atleti to its first loss at the Cívitas Metropolitano in 29 games — a stretch encompassing 395 calendar days.

It was only the second time in 15 games that Atlético failed to score. The opponent in that other game? Athletic.

“There is an advantage for Athletic, they are playing (the second leg) at home, in front of their fans,” Diego Simeone told reporters Wednesday night. “They have an advantage, but football is football and anything can happen.”

Atletico Madrid v Athletic Club: Semi-Final - Copa del Rey Photo by Manu Reino/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

So true. Athletic’s odds to get anything out of the Metropolitano matchup lengthened with the news that star winger Nico Williams would not play due to an injury picked up the previous Friday. Los Leones had two days’ more rest than Atlético — something that infuriated Simeone, often so mild in press conferences — but Los Colchoneros dominated the second half. They conceded 0.59 xG outside of the Berenguer penalty and finished the match with 68 percent possession, attempting 20 shots (15 inside the penalty area) and accruing 1.64 expected goals.

They scored none. Where a rattled Atlético appeared rushed and hurried after falling behind, Athletic’s deputy keeper Julen Agirrezabala was confident and assured throughout, coming out to snag wayward crosses and commanding his area well. Ernesto Valverde’s well-drilled defense rarely looked flustered — although there was surely some relief when referee Hernández Hernández cancelled what would have been an Atlético penalty in second-half stoppage time. Defender Dani Vivián clattered Álvaro Morata, but the striker was in an offside position.

“It’s one long match, there are 90 minutes left and the important thing was not to let the result get away from us,” Simeone said. “Athletic played with order, they recovered balls after they were lost. They defended very well. The second leg will be a great game.”

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

But there is a long way to go between now and the second leg, which will take place at the imposing San Mamés on Feb. 29. In a vacuum, Atlético could easily improve in the second leg and bury a couple of those chances that went begging in the first leg. One has to assume that Mario Hermoso will start that game from the off after Simeone’s Reinildo gamble backfired spectacularly, while José María Giménez should be healthy enough to start as the most-central of the three center-backs — pushing Axel Witsel to the right and giving Atleti a better chance to play its way out of pressure in wide areas.

However, before Atlético get another shot at Athletic, Los Rojiblancos have three league games to play — and a slim three-point edge in the table over their Basque counterparts. Atleti visit relegation candidates Sevilla and Almería either side of a home game against Las Palmas — which defeated Simeone’s men back in November. There is also the small matter of a UEFA Champions League tie against Inter Milan, which kicks off at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza in 11 days’ time. Inter are four-point leaders in Serie A and have lost just twice all season while conceding only nine goals at home.

As Simeone said, anything can happen in this sport, and the longtime coach believes Atlético “are on the right path” after such a bitter defeat in the first leg of this semifinal. It will have come as a shock to the system, to lose at the Metropolitano after all this time, and it is paramount for Atleti to recover as quickly as possible by defeating Sevilla for the third time this season.

And as Atlético had an off-night on Wednesday, Athletic can have one too — even at San Mamés, where Valverde’s men have not lost since August. Koke is already circling the wagons to that effect, knowing Atleti’s Copa del Rey dream hangs in the balance.

“Just as they beat us here, we can beat them there,” the captain said post-match.