Out-Of-Sorts Atletico Show Signs Of Strain

Atletico Madrid missed an opportunity to maintain their lead at the top of La Liga by suffering a shock defeat to struggling Almeria. Can they recover to hold off the Big Two?

Last Updated: 10/02/14 at 09:25 Post Comment

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If Diego Simeone's Atlético Madrid were a singer, they would be Bruce Springsteen: earthy, growly, and workmanlike with sleeves rolled up and digging up roads for a living. Like The Boss's back catalogue, most Atlético performances under the Argentinean manager have been solid, rarely spectacular but with the odd hands-in-the-air 'Born to Run' moments.

This has been the key to the wonderful Rojiblanco success over the past two years. It's that ability to overcome the more modest, gritty rivals that seem to cause problems to the positively Liberace-esque Barcelona and Real Madrid. Whereas the traditional Big Two tend to struggle to break down bus-parking defences, Atlético rarely have issues squeezing opponents to a bursting point with honest, hard-working endeavours.

A narrow one or two goal victory against Almería was the expected result on Saturday night down on Spain's blustery south coast. The team was certainly going to be a little dulled by the midweek defeat to Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey, but the key strength of Atlético is being able to bounce right back and get on with the job in hand.

Instead, it was Almería who dug deep for 75 minutes, ceding possession to the visitors and then scoring two late goals against a team missing the calming influence of Thibaut Courtois in goal. Replacement Dani Aranzubia was sent off after giving a penalty away with five minutes remaining, leaving the midfielder Gabi to try - and fail - to save the spot-kick.

"There are no excuses. We cannot blame the referee, the wind, nothing. Our rivals did a great job. Congratulations," was the message from working class hero, Simeone after the defeat, which was only Atlético's second of the league campaign.

The Vicente Calderón club now have another grueling match with Real Madrid on Tuesday, as they try to overcome a 3-0 deficit in the Copa del Rey. Simeone must hope that the distraction of the cup competition does not suck too much energy from the team to the detriment of the title race and the upcoming Champions League dates against Milan, as poor as Clarence Seedorf's side currently appear.

Tuesday's opponents are certainly in the ascendency in terms of spirit after a 4-2 victory against Villarreal in the Santiago Bernabéu. Not only did the game see Real Madrid draw level with their city rivals at the top of La Liga, the victory also saw Gareth Bale back in action and claiming a goal and an assist. However, the current toast of the Bernabéu is attacking midfielder Jesé Rodríguez, who is being cherished as a rare beastie in Madrid these days - a youth academy product good enough to keep a regular spot in the first team.

There is even pressure brewing for a call-up to the Spain's World Cup squad, although Vicente Del Bosque would have to decide which of Alvaró Negredo, Fernando Llorente, Diego Costa, David Villa, Pedro, Cesc Fabregas, Jesús Navas, David Silva, Juan Mata, Isco amongst many others would have to make way.

Barcelona's players had spent half their week telling supporters to come along to matches after just 38,000 attended the Camp Nou on Wednesday night in a Copa del Rey semi-final against Real Sociedad. The fans in return might ask the Barcelona players to defend properly as they seem quite incapable of achieving this at the moment - and arguably over the past year - with Sevilla taking the lead in a Sunday clash in the Sánchez Pizjuán. The home side almost got a second before Barcelona woke up and a brace from Leo Messi contributed to a 4-1 victory to leave a three-way equal points tie at the top of the table.

For so long, La Liga has quite rightfully been the butt of jokes for being one of the most pointless (and point-filled) title races out of Europe's big leagues. But this season, the rough and ready Atlético are still neck and neck with the money-bags Big Two, despite an usual defeat down south. Each week, the title race is getting better and better.

Tim Stannard

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