Wanda Metropolitano, Madrid – On the touchline at the Metropolitano on Saturday afternoon stood two managers; with the mid-December sun shining brightly on them, in the eyes of their respective supporters, they can do no wrong. Whether it be in relation to Alaves, Aberlado and the short-term or Atletico Madrid, Diego Simeone and the long-term, both have impacted their clubs profoundly since taking charge.
Albeit this particular afternoon ended with Atletico Madrid glory and another valuable three points in this season’s intriguing La Liga title race – and was in truth one of Alaves’ poorest performances of recent months – the dramatic increase in both quality of play and tally of points for Alaves has been remarkable in the past 12 months. Aberlado took over at the Basque club on December 1 last year and since then only Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico have won more points in Spain’s top division.
It is a credit to Aberlado and his coaching that in the space of one-year Alaves have gone from the serious threat of relegation to being placed sixth or above for the past 15 matchdays – the Spanish equivalent of Leicester City you may say. It was why this encounter against Atletico was so enticing with third versus fourth and the possibility of Alaves moving up to joint-second. In many ways, this match was this season’s overachievers versus the perennial overachievers of late.
To call Atletico Madrid overachievers may be slightly off the mark, as they have played in two Champions League finals in the past four seasons, won the Europa League last season and, of course, became La Liga champions in 2014. They are consistently competitive. Nevertheless, Los Rojiblancos should not be competing with the likes of Real and Barcelona as consistently as they are.
But they have, and that is mainly down to Simeone. This month represents Simeone’s seventh anniversary as Atletico head coach and although his win percentage of 62 per cent over those years says a lot, there is much more to Simeone’s impact than the statistics. ‘El Pupas’ hung over Atletico for many years; they were deemed the ‘unlucky’ ones as everything went against them; they were inferior to their city rivals and as Atleti supporters have admitted, supporting them was more of a chore than a joy.
For instance, for their centenary celebrations back in 2003, the club released a new club anthem, which was sung by folk singer Joaquin Sabina. On the matchday of the celebrations, however, there was an issue with the copyrights for the song and as quintessentially-Atletico can be, they were unable to play their centenary club song on their centenary – instead, they played The Rolling Stones’ ‘You can’t always get what you want’.
During the past few seasons, Atletico’s fortunes have improved; their successes starting under Quique Sanchez Flores and continuing under Simeone are telling. And yet, the sentiment of ‘El Pupas’ remains and losing two Champions League finals to Real whilst also losing a semi-final – and final European match at the Vicente Calderon – to their city rivals only exacerbates the sentiment.
Simeone has embraced the club’s fortunes though; their style is synonymous even though it seems that every season they initially try a more expansive attacking approach before reverting back to type. Toppling Barcelona and Real Madrid has proved near on impossible in recent years; at the time, Atletico’s 2014 title triumph seemed very much like a one-hit wonder, but this season might see a sequel.
— Oliver Miller (@oliver_miller) December 8, 2018
This now feels like Simeone’s second Atletico squad during his seven-year spell, few of the current squad were there in 2014. Given Barcelona’s fairly underwhelming start to the season and Real’s struggles, there is a pathway opening up for a challenger. Having sat in waiting for the past four seasons, there is an opportunity for Atletico again this time around. In recent matchdays, there have been chances for no less than five teams to move top of the table such is the compactness at the top. Though none have seriously laid down a marker as of yet.
The 3-0 victory over Alaves on Saturday exaggerated Atletico’s dominance in the game, but nevertheless, the hosts were clinical and for the first time this season appeared to sense the chance that they have in front of them. “The result doesn’t reflect how the game was, but we can do a lot of damage and we showed that,” Jose Maria Gimenez said post-match. “We played an intelligent game, although we have to congratulate Alaves because they played a great game and we understood how important it was to win.”
This was Atletico’s first win in three league matches, and sent them into third on 28 points, keeping the pressure on Barcelona and Sevilla ahead of them. The scoreline was even more surprising given that Atletico were without Diego Costa who is undergoing surgery on a nagging foot issue. Nicola Kalinic was brought in – whether he is a permanent solution, as there has been talk of interest in Maxi Gomez, is yet to be seen – and scored the opener.
A whipped ball from Columbian right-back Santiago Arias was chested past Fernando Pacheco and into the Alaves net from close range by Kalinic. For all of Atletico’s possession, there were few clear-cut opportunities for the hosts and Alaves were always eager to break and feed the ball towards Jonathan Calleri. A strained squad got even thinner for Simeone as Lucas Hernandez joined the already lengthy injury list; highlighting one aspect where Atletico might come up short again this season.
Hernandez’s replacement, Gimenez, almost doubled Atletico’s lead in the second half but his header from a corner-kick rebounded back off the post. There was the sense in the stadium that Alaves were capable of springing one coherent attack to manage the equaliser. Aberlado’s side saw more of the ball and one deflected shot even had Jan Oblak backtracking quickly to tip over his crossbar.
But the victory was secured in the final 10 minutes as Antoine Griezmann was sent through on goal by Vitolo. With Pacheco advancing, Griezmann could only strike the near post but he tucked away the rebound from no more than a foot away from the goal line. Rodri added the gloss to the scoreline that was not truly reflective of the afternoon with a strike from inside the six-yard area.
“They are doing an enormous job,” Simeone said of his players, but so – it must be noted – is he. With a third of the season now played, there is the opportunity for Atletico to take a stranglehold of the league. Simeone is one to calm expectations and that’s quite contradictory of his very emotional personality, but he will realise that this is his side’s best chance of La Liga glory since 2014. Whether they achieve it or not, there is no doubt that the job he continues to do at Atletico is hugely impressive.
Los Otros Puntos
It was also a privilege to spend time with this season’s Segunda surprise package, Alcorcon, this weekend. Yet another southern suburb of Madrid that is punching above its weight in terms of football, Alcorcon are attempting to win promotion to the top flight following nine consecutive seasons in Segunda under the guidance of Cristobal Parralo. Since their founding in 1971, Alcorcon have steadily scaled the leagues with eight promotions and are one of the smallest teams in the league but that is no constraint to their ambitions. Their Santo Domingo stadium has a capacity of 5,100 and is rarely full, not through poor support but simply down to the size of the town.
— Oliver Miller (@oliver_miller) December 9, 2018
There was the chance that Alcorcon could have looked very different to how it does today, as the proposed Eurovegas project was due to be built in the town but was subsequently cancelled and abandoned in 2013. The here-and-now for their football team is positive despite defeat to struggling Reus costing them top-spot on Sunday. The match revolved around a penalty mid-way through the first half that cost Alcorcon both a player and a goal, such fine margins can have huge impacts and will determine whether the biggest promotion of them all will come for Alcorcon.
The match started as a draw and finished as a draw, but what happened during the 90 minutes was pure drama. It finished 4-4 between Eibar and Levante: 1-0, 1-1, 1-2, 2-2, 3-2, 4-2, 4-3, 4-4. Some match!
The comeback for Villarreal looked on but there was not enough time to find the equaliser against Celta Vigo. Consequently, Javi Calleja’s time in charge of Villarreal has also run out of time – some may say it’s been a while coming.
In other managerial news, Gaizka Garritano has been given the job of ensuring that Athletic Bilbao do not suffer their first ever relegation from the Primera – a late winner against Girona was not a bad way to start.
Valencia got their ninth draw of the season – yes ninth!! – thanks to a late header from Mouctar Diakhaby against Sevilla.
Leo Messi being Leo Messi should never be taken for granted.
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How lucky are we to be alive at the same time as Lionel Messi ?
He scored not one but TWO free kicks in an impressive Barcelona performance yesterday…
— Eleven Sports (@ElevenSports_UK) December 9, 2018
A south Madrid derby featuring plenty of chances, a mandatory red card and one goal apiece means Leganes are unbeaten in their last five league matches whilst Getafe are unbeaten in their last seven away matches.
Leganes 1-1 Getafe
Atletico Madrid 3-0 Alaves
Valencia 1-1 Sevilla
Villarreal 2-3 Celta Vigo
Espanyol 0-4 Barcelona
Eibar 4-4 Levante
Huesca 0-1 Real Madrid
Real Sociedad 1-2 Valladolid
Real Betis 2-0 Rayo Vallecano
Athletic Bilbao 1-0 Girona
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