LaLiga: Time ripe for Atletico Madrid to end Barcelona bogey and underline genuine title credentials
A win over their bogey team Barcelona would help Atletico Madrid throw the gauntlet to the rest of the league and show that they are legitimate title contenders
It's been almost four and a half years since Atletico Madrid managed to secure a 1-1 draw on the final day of the season at the Camp Nou against Barcelona to win the league title for the first time in 18 years. That team managed to achieve something incredible, battling against two giants of Spanish football in Barcelona and Real Madrid that would go on to win the Champions League for the next five years between them.
Diego Simeone's side became specialists at clawing and scrapping their way to wins, using their physicality and defensive acumen to shackle opponents and secure wins. They scored only 77 goals in 38 games in the league that season, less than two goals per game, but won thanks to their defence conceding only 26 goals.
Since that season, they have added to their team's attacking arsenal, with their attack today looking indistinguishable from the 13/14 campaign. The likes of Antoine Griezmann and Thomas Lemar have added a good blend of guile, pace and skill to the frontline. They also brought back Diego Costa last season, who played a crucial role in them winning the title in 2014, as they looked to mount a serious title charge for the next few seasons with a squad that could compare to the ones possessed by Barcelona and Real Madrid.
Los Colchoneros have bridged the gap between the top two and themselves in the last few season to show that their triumph in 2014 was not a fluke. After finishing third for three seasons on the trot, they climbed up to second last season, making an important step in the forward direction. The board recognised that and backed Simeone with funds in the transfer market, as they spent a net total of almost 80 million pounds to improve their squad, bringing in the likes of Lemar, Nikola Kalinic, Rodri and Gelson Martins to add some much-needed quality and depth.
However, in a season where they were expected to challenge for the title, they have started the league in slow fashion, accumulating only 23 points from their 12 matches so far. Despite that, they are only one point off the leaders, Barcelona. The main reason for their slow start, despite losing only one game so far, has been their inability to kill opponents off. Atletico have stuttered in front of goal, which is a disappointment, given the attacking options at Simeone's disposal. Five draws in 12 matches speaks volumes of the team's tendency to try and grind matches rather than go for the jugular right from the beginning and that has cost them.
With only 16 goals scored, it is clear that the problem lies in their attack, with Griezmann the leading goalscorer with three, followed by Lemar with two. Costa has failed to find the back of the net in the league this season, with his last league goal coming in February. These numbers prove that despite having a good group of attacking players, the team is just not clicking in the forward areas and need to improve to show that they can contend for the title.
Barcelona, on the other hand, have been an offensive juggernaut this season, scoring 34 goals in 12 games so far, averaging 2.8 goals per game. Lionel Messi has of course been central to their goalscoring with nine goals and five assists in the 10 games he has played. But, what has stood out is the Blaugrana's ability to score goals and get important results even without their talisman. Ernesto Valverde's side thrashed Real Madrid 5-1, while also getting the better of Rayo Vallecano thanks to Luis Suarez's goals. The Uruguayan has been a key figure, scoring nine and assisting four more.
However, it has been their vulnerability on the defensive end that has been their Achilles heel as they have drawn three and lost two matches due to their inability to hold out opponents at crucial junctures. The return of their attacking fluency has coincided with their defensive lapses, something that has changed from how they won the league last season, principally on the back of a strong defence, conceding only 29 goals in 38 matches. This season though, they have already shipped 18 goals in 12 matches, and a lot of those goals have been defensive mistakes on the part of their defenders.
Gerard Pique has been suspect and has already made a few mistakes that have directly led to goals for the opposition, while the absence of Samuel Umtiti and Thomas Vermaelen due to injury has put pressure on new signing Clement Lenglet to step up to the plate immediately, and that has not been easy. Against a team like Atletico, they cannot afford any defensive mistakes as Los Rojiblancos are experts at taking advantage of errors and scoring to grind out results.
The Catalan giants have an impressive record against Atletico in the last eight years, with their previous defeat against the Madrid outfit coming way back in 2010. Despite Atletico holding a good record in the Champions League against Barcelona, eliminating them twice in the last few seasons, league matches have been dominated by the Camp Nou side. More often than not, Diego Simeone's side have been found wanting on the attacking end, and their impotence in front of goal has cost them.
Griezmann is the catalyst for the Atletico Madrid side and symbolises them in many ways due to his constant running, tireless help in defence and ability to strike danger in the hearts of opponents at the drop of a beat in attack. He is the epitome of what Diego Simeone's philosophy is and has to step up against Barcelona to show that he truly is as good as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, something he believes he can be. The Frenchman declined a move to Barcelona in the summer to prolong his stay at Atletico, with one reason being his lack of interest in playing second fiddle to Messi. Now, it is time for the World Cup winner to show that he can lead his team to a win against a strong opponent and prove that he can be just as successful at Atletico.
Diego Simeone has preached confidence in the style and system his side play and would be hoping that they can use that to stifle Barcelona and hit them on the counter thanks to their quality in attack. The Argentine has always loved being the underdog and would love to claim an important win that shows the strides they have made and how far they have come since the 2013/14 league-winning campaign. However, to do that, he might have to fall back on their biggest strength, their defence, and show that they are genuine title contenders just on the back of that.
Atletico Madrid have had to be very patient and build slowly to try and climb out of the shadow cast by their crosstown rivals Real. Having strengthened the squad well in the summer, and having gained confidence from the Europa League triumph last season Atletico would believe they can end the hegemony of the big two in Spain. A win over their bogey team Barcelona will not only go a long way in telling Antoine Griezmann that he made the right call in choosing to stay, but would also help them throw the gauntlet to the rest of the league and show that they are legitimate title contenders and are not the team happy to finish in third place anymore.
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