Fernando Torres has enjoyed something of a resurgence since his return to boyhood club Atletico Madrid and he certainly rolled back the years when he scored an audacious equaliser against Celta Vigo on Sunday.
Antoine Griezmann sealed a thrilling comeback from 2-1 down with four minutes remaining to win 3-2 and move into fourth in La Liga.
Torres’ effort initially leveled the tie at 1-1. After controlling the ball inside the penalty area with his back to goal, he pulled off a sensational overhead strike to loop the ball over the keeper and into the back of the net – vintage Torres.
However, for the third straight game, Atletico failed to convert a spot-kick when the Spaniard – this time resembling his form during a disastrous spell at Chelsea – smashed the bar midway through the first-half.
John Guidetti looked to have delivered the telling blow when he slotted home Daniel Wass’s cut-back 12 minutes from time.
Yet, Atletico responded in style as Yannick Carrasco crashed home a volley from 25 yards to give the hosts hope and challenge Torres’ strike for goal of the game.
And just two minutes later Kevin Gameiro’s cushioned header was swept home by Griezmann for his 16th goal of the season.
Atletico Madrid’s rise over the last few years under Diego Simeone has been underpinned by a stingy defence, and this season is no different.
While inconsistency up front has seen Atletico fall behind in La Liga’s title race – they currently lie fifth in the table ahead of their game on Sunday against Celta Vigo – the trademark defensive solidity is still there.
Only Villarreal has conceded fewer goals than Atletico this season, and, as the WhoScored.com stats below show, no team has kept more clean sheets in the league.
After first-choice goalkeeper Jan Oblak went down with a shoulder injury in December, Miguel Angel Moya has stepped up to the plate to ensure that Atletico’s defence hasn’t skipped a beat.
Simeone’s focus on building a strong foundation at the back and instilling a high work rate in his players has been crucial to Atletico’s recent success.
Atlético Madrid: Have kept more clean sheets (12) than any other team in La Liga this season pic.twitter.com/YgAUl1haEw— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) February 12, 2017
That foundation should hold the team in good stead as they look to recover from an indifferent start to this season and qualify for the Champions League again.
There used to be a little ditty that did the rounds of the three ‘biggest’ clubs in the Basque region that went ‘Eramos dos, ya somos tres, solo falta el Alavés’ (There were two of us, now there are three, we’re just missing Alavés). The chant is a neat snapshot of the history of football up in the north east, particularly with regard to Deportivo Alavés – this season’s surprise package after their return to the top flight and, of course, King’s Cup finalists in May for the first time in their history after their defeat of Celta in the 2nd leg of the semi-finals in midweek.
Before anyone writes in to protest, the song obviously omits Eibar, who are the fifth Basque club in the top flight this season, for the first time in the league’s history, but back when the ditty was created nobody really ever dreamt that they would also one day be a part of the elite. The other members of the set are of course Athletic Bilbao, Real Sociedad and Osasuna, although the latter, in strictly political terms, hail from Pamplona which is the capital of the Navarra autonomous region, but is culturally a part of the Basque Country. This is defined by Basques as anywhere where their unique language is spoken, and plenty of it is, in Navarra. But let’s not complicate the picture. The ditty is well-known in those parts, and everyone is pretty happy that Alavés have made it to the final, particularly after the controversy surrounding the extra week’s rest that their semi-final opponents gained by cancelling their league game against Madrid, after high winds damaged part of their stadium. In the end, the rest seemed to do them more harm than good, and Alavés squeezed through, 1-0 on the night.
Alavés are an interesting club. They are based in the elegant city Vitoria (‘Gasteiz’ in Basque), which is the administrative capital of the Basque Country. Their name derives from their particular Basque region in the west, called ‘Alava’. Historically-speaking they have never been up to much, this being only their 12th season in the top flight since their foundation in 1921, and most people remember them for their Warhol-esque 15 minutes of fame in 2001 when they fought out a wonderful UEFA Cup final against Liverpool, eventually losing 5-4 in one of the defunct competition’s most sparkling finals. That season they finished 10th in the league, but two years later they went down, denuded of the players who had led them to that final. They re-surfaced briefly in 2005 but returned to the depths immediately, plummeting further to Segunda B for four seasons and flirting with financial liquidation after a spell under the presidency of the infamous Dmitry Piterman. When Piterman finally fled club and country, he left Alavés on the verge of bankruptcy, his usual trick. Nevertheless, the phoenix bounced back and up to Saturday’s home game against Barcelona, Alavés had only suffered one defeat in nine games, ironically at Celta.
Speaking of ironies, their illustrious opponents for the Saturday afternoon game were of course active in midweek themselves, drawing 1-1 at home to Atlético and thus qualifying for the King’s Cup Final. To talk of ‘rehearsal’ for the big day was somewhat premature, but the coincidence of the pairing nevertheless made it the fixture of the weekend. Barcelona were probably wishing that their league position was better, thus affording them the chance to rest some players ahead of their tricky Tuesday game in Paris against PSG, but their recent poor form and Madrid’s continued leadership (with two games in hand) counselled a more cautious approach. What they were perhaps hoping for was a ‘resaca’ (hangover) on the part of Alavés, who seemed to have been partying since Wednesday night.
Despite the hangover, Alavés had another weapon in the shape of their Mendizorrotza ground, which has to be one of the coldest places on Earth. I exaggerate of course, but the particular geography of Vitoria, on higher ground inland from Bilbao, earns it the nickname ‘Siberia-Gasteiz’. The record low is -18 below, and the stadium, which means ‘serrated peak’ in Basque, isn’t for the faint-hearted. I toyed with the idea of a press pass for the game, but in the end decided to watch it in the comfort of my (heated) home, some 90 kilometres from the Siberian wastelands. Just in case this seems a little harsh on the place, it is worth adding that Vitoria is consistently voted among the top five cities of Spain to visit (it has a charming historic zone), but if you should go, just make sure you pack your fur coat.
A further twist to the tale was that the speculation had already begun as to the location of the final, scheduled for May 27th. This is becoming a rather amusing annual palaver, with Real Madrid consistently finding reasons to ensure that Barcelona do not lift the King’s trophy within their hallowed grounds – although they never quite put it like that. This summer the work to remodel the Bernabéu begins, but one rather suspects that the date was brought forward once Real Madrid had lost to Celta. You can hardly blame them, when the Catalan tabloid ‘Sport’ wrote recently that the present generation of Barça supporters deserved the chance to ‘profanar el templo blanco’ (desecrate the white temple) – a wonderful phrase but hardly one destined to open the Bernabéu gates to the marauding Catalans, nationalist flags in hand and whistles at the ready to drown out the Spanish national anthem. All quite amusing stuff in a sense, but with the political tension currently so high regarding the Catalan independence issue, the match is more likely to be played in Valencia, who also need the money. If they decide on Atlético’s Calderon in Madrid, the problem is that King Felipe would have to suffer the double humiliation of the usual booing and whistling at the ground of the team he nominally supports.
Alavés are Basques of course, and would be expected to join in with the annual rejection of Spanish patriotism, although among the Basque clubs they are probably the least nationalist. The city of Vitoria has a more Spanish feel to it than either San Sebastián or Bilbao, but there is nevertheless enough regional sentiment there to ensure an anti-Spain fiesta in May. Alavés themselves sought to have the game played in the new San Mamés in Bilbao, which certainly has the capacity, but were rebuffed on Friday with the news that Guns N’ Roses are playing a concert there just after the date and needed five days to prepare the stadium. Athletic’s press officer, to be fair, expressed regret at not being able to host their neighbour’s finest moment, but ‘cultural’ matters have presided.
In the end, Barcelona extracted revenge for their surprising early-season defeat at home to Alavés with a resounding 6-0 win. It seems odd to say it, but it wasn’t actually a thrashing. There were times in the game when Alavés (who nevertheless looked a bit short on energy) should really have scored and made the whole event more competitive. At 0-0 there was a wonderful run from the full-back Theo (it’s his trademark), from his own half to Marc-André Ter Stegen’s area with poor Lucas Digne hopelessly giving chase, but he hit his final shot too close to Barcelona’s goalkeeper. The 2-0 half-time score in the visitors’ favour was about right, but immediately after the break the useful-looking Marcos Llorente missed a sitter – and you just don’t do that against Barcelona. Amazingly, even for the champions, they then scored four goals in eight minutes, which might be some sort of record for them. Every time they attacked they scored, and poor Alavés shrank in the cold air. The only negative note of the day for Barcelona was the horrific-looking injury to Aleix Vidal, just as he was beginning to look useful. He’ll be out for at least five months. The other bad news was that Real Madrid won their first away game in 2017, defeating bottom club Osasuna 3-1 in a game which saw Los Blancos return to the top of the table after about a four-hour absence.
Not too much should be read into the Alavés result. Barcelona still look wobbly at the back, and the home side rested various players. And wherever the cup final is eventually played, a repeat score is somewhat unlikely.
🔥⚽️🔥— Real Madrid C.F. (@realmadriden) February 12, 2017
Last night we scored goals 99, 100 and 101 of our season so far!
Watch some of the best 👇https://t.co/SyegpWaWgD