Watching a match like Tuesday’s Champions League first leg between Atletico and Liverpool, you would be forgiven for thinking that the reigning champions of Europe were the ones playing at home. Liverpool and their high powered offense did not register a single shot on target, and I have to say as someone still a little bit bitter about the Europa League a few years back I found it rather gratifying.
That said, Atleti is still only two points above us in the table, a win on Sunday would see us leap frog them in the La Liga standings. We sat down with Rob Walker of SBN’s Into the Calderon to see how things look from their perspective.
It seems like you guys haven’t been able to keep forwards healthy all season. Would you say health is the primary cause for Atleti’s lack of goals or is it something more fundamental than that?
Atléti’s striker depth has been decimated through poor transactions and injury luck. Diego Costa has basically not been healthy for any appreciable stretch since he rejoined the club in January 2018. Álvaro Morata started off the season on an absolute tear, and was the only player that could get on the score sheet. Predictably, he cooled off and got hurt, but despite that, he’s still the team’s leader in goals. Correa has mostly taken up the mantle since then, and has done an impressive job, but is by no means a top class striker, or even a striker at all, playing best behind a number nine.
The only signing Atleti had over the winter window was Yannick Carrasco who is off to a slow start. Do you think he’ll gain form here in La Liga or is this transfer already a bust?
Carrasco’s return was essentially a free punt, so to call it a failure at this point would be premature. He has had pretty high profile tiffs with Diego Simeone, and it’s generally believed that he’s not a favorite of Cholo, and this had more to do with Atléti’s relationship with Dalian Yifang. Despite all the strange happenings in the periphery around Carrasco, he remains one of three men to have scored in a Champions League/European Cup final for Atléti, with Diego Godín (2014) and Luis Aragonés (1974).
Talk to me about that huge win over Liverpool.
The result over Liverpool was both entirely predicable and completely out of the blue. On one hand, Atléti have been fairly awful all season by their recent standards, never really finding a flow as a team. On the other, Champions League knockout games are what Diego Simeone lives for, and this match was his dream scenario and result. The early goal meant Atléti could conserve some energy, and fend off waves of Liverpool attack. We’ve seen this game plan go both ways as well in recent years, as Atléti invite pressure, eventually teams can make a breakthrough, but for teams so unaccustomed to Atléti’s style, Liverpool were good targets, as well.
What does this side need in order to get back to being the intimidating powerhouse we’ve seen over the last several years?
This team definitely is in a re-tooling more than rebuilding mode at this stage, but the main issue is a character vacuum. For a team that plays like Atléti does, there have to be strong characters on the pitch, not just in the dugout with Simeone and his staff. Gabi, Godín, Tiago and Diego Costa all exuded the bitter determination of their manager, and at times this season, all of their absences have been felt on the pitch. João Félix has shown flashes, but not enough for a man that cost as much as he did. There have been good signings around the periphery, but it will be the guys that have been at the club for years now that have to take the step forward.
Editor’s note, I’ve always wondered how Atleti fans would describe that erm... character trait and so the ‘bitter determination’ did not disappoint. Playing against it has always elucidated different and probably less creative terms for it that were not nearly as flattering.
Of the Villarreal players to move to Atleti over the years (Rodri, Vietto, Godin,Forlan) who was your personal favorite?
Diego Godín is absolutely the answer, given his impact on the club, the iconic Camp Nou goal and the goal in Lisbon, Diego is the guy for this era of Atléti. Rodri was brilliant for a season, and Diego Forlan is probably one of the most mercurially brilliant players, and his contribution in the Europa League final is certainly huge. And then, Luciano Vietto, wow, what a player. Villarreal, honestly should get some kind of recognition for actually getting something very useful out of Vietto, along with a bundle of Atléti’s cash.
Editor’s note Vietto had 18 league goals in La Liga and UEL play his last season with Villarreal, he has 15 goals in league and European competition at his five clubs since.
Where do you think Atleti will end this season in the La Liga table?
Eventually Atléti will end up third or fourth, though right now it seems like the latter is more likely. La Liga is gone for this club, so the Champions League is the focus, and so long as they qualify for the competition next season, all will be well.
As we wrap up, score prediction?
I feel a come-down from midweek coming, so 1-1.
A huge thank you, again, to Rob and everyone at Into the Calderon for helping us out with this piece. They do great work on Atletico over there so if you want to have the latest information and analysis on that club, please go check them out. I’m sort of feeling a draw as well and I think it may be a very, very ugly match.