Atletico Madrid now Barcelona's main challengers for La Liga title

Andy West 4/12/2017
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Barcelona drew. Real Madrid drew. Valencia lost.

All told, it was not a great weekend for the title-chasers in La Liga. With one exception: Atletico Madrid, despite being second-best for much of their home game against dangerous Real Sociedad, scrambled three points thanks to a late winner from Antoine Griezmann, who followed the modern trend by refusing to celebrate a goal against his former club.

Griezmann might not have rejoiced, but for Atletico fans – and for neutral followers of La Liga everywhere – Atletico’s last-gasp triumph this weekend should perhaps be warmly welcomed as the result puts Diego Simeone’s men in the thick of the title race.

For much of this season, Atletico have been surrounded by a new and notable level of criticism and negativity.
Although they remain unbeaten in La Liga, they have suffered too many low-scoring draws against opponents they really should be beating, and are also on the brink of Champions League elimination after twice failing to fight their way out of Qarabag.

For the first time since he arrived at the club six years ago, Simeone has found his tactics questioned for a perceived negativity, and star forwards Yannick Carrasco and Griezmann have come under scrutiny for their lacklustre attitudes.

All has not been well in the Rojiblanco house…yet look at them now, still unbeaten after 14 league games – their best ever start in that respect – just one point behind lavishly lauded Valencia, two points clear of bitter crosstown rivals Real Madrid, and six points behind suddenly struggling Barcelona.

If that’s Atletico’s position after such a supposedly poor start to the season, can you imagine how fly they might fly if they find top form?

The good news for Atletico is that they can certainly get much better, especially going forward. They have often been clearly lacking in attacking ideas, relying on set-pieces or sheer persistence rather than genuine chance creation, scoring one or no goals in seven of their league games so far.

But the last couple of weeks have shown signs of encouragement, especially with the return to form of Griezmann, who has now scored four goals in his last three games.

The turning point for the French forward came in the must-win Champions League clash with Roma a couple of weeks ago, when Griezmann ended a two-month goal drought with a spectacular overhead volley to set his team on their way to a 2-0 win which kept their qualification hopes alive.

Antoine Griezmann back in form

Antoine Griezmann back in form

He then scored twice in the 5-0 thrashing of Levante last week before adding Saturday’s winner against Real Sociedad, putting suggestions that he is preparing to quit the club in January on the backburner.

Talking of January, that rapidly approaching month will also provide Griezmann with significant and much-needed support in the formidable shape of Diego Costa, who will be ready to kick off his second spell at Atletico when the club’s transfer ban comes to an end.

And Costa won’t be the only one, with Spanish international winger Vitolo, who can provide exactly the kind of wily invention that Atletico often badly lack, also coming on board after spending the first half of the season on loan at Las Palmas following his transfer from Sevilla.

The addition of Costa and Vitolo – two top-class and proven performers – should make a great deal of difference to Atletico’s firepower, assuming they can quickly integrate into the team’s style of play which, of course, should not be any problem at all for Costa.

At the other end of the field, Simeone’s men continue to be among the best defences in the world, having conceded just seven goals in their 14 league games to date – the joint-best tally in La Liga alongside Barcelona.

Diego Godin, Jose Maria Gimenez, Lucas Hernandez and Stefan Savic all provide outstanding quality in the centre of Simeone’s defence, allowing the Argentine coach to rotate his back four without losing any of their famous defensive impenetrability.

This week could deliver a serious setback to Atletico’s season with a Champions League knockout – they need to win away at Chelsea and hope that Roma drop points against Qarabag to progress.

But even that could be helpful to their league ambitions, allowing them to focus all their energies in one direction (the Copa del Rey and Europa League, realistically, would be afterthoughts).

So they might have suffered a ‘bad’ start to the season, but Atletico now appear to be hitting their stride, and they are very much genuine contenders for the La Liga title.

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Barcelona slip up against Celta Vigo offers Real Madrid and Atletico life-line

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Celta Vigo breathed life into La Liga‘s title race becoming the first team this season to take points off Barcelona at the Nou Camp in a thrilling 2-2 draw on Saturday.

Iago Aspas gave Celta an early lead, but an inspired display from Lionel Messi appeared to have earned Barca another three points as he immediately equalised and then helped tee up Luis Suarez to put the hosts 2-1 in front.

However, the excellent Aspas set up Maxi Gomez 20 minutes from time as Barca centre-back Samuel Umtiti suffered what could be a costly injury.

Barca’s slip-up is a boost for Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, who can close to within six points with victories over Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad respectively later on Saturday.

“We are Barcelona and we want to win every game, but it isn’t always possible,” Barca boss Ernesto Valverde told BeIN Sports Spain.

“Today we’ve drawn when we had more chances to win, but the league depends on a long season, not just one game.”

Celta have been a bogey side for Barca in recent years, beating the Catalans once in each of the past three seasons.

And a positive start from the Galicians on Celta boss Juan Carlos Unzue’s return to the Camp Nou, where he spent three years as Luis Enrique’s assistant, was rewarded 20 minutes in.

Aspas sprung Barca’s offside trap and crossed for the unmarked Gomez who was denied by an incredible save by Marc-Andre ter Stegen.

However, the rebound fell for Aspas to slot home his ninth goal of the season.

“Barca had more chances but I think with the ones we had we put Ter Stegen to the test,” said Unzue.
“It is a good result for us and I think it is a deserved one.”

Celta’s lead lasted two minutes, though, as Messi latched onto Paulinho’s pass to fire low under Ruben Blanco for his first goal since late October.

Messi then took control of the game as Barca pressed to go ahead before half-time.

A sensational pass from the Argentine was smashed home by Suarez, only for the Uruguayan to be wrongly flagged offside.

Paulinho then had a huge chance at the start of the second period when he rounded Blanco only to fire into the side-netting.

It seemed a matter of time before Celta’s resistence was broken and Barca’s second duly arrived just after the hour when great work by Messi and Jordi Alba teed up Suarez for his first goal at the Camp Nou in nearly three months.

An end-to-end encounter swung back Celta’s way in a double blow for Barca.

Umtiti pulled up with what looked like a hamstring problem as he chased Aspas down the right and the

Spanish international then patiently picked out Gomez to fire into an unguarded net.

“It was a series of unfortunate incidents in the one move,” lamented Valverde.

“Above all for the injury to Samuel than to give away the goal.”

Thomas Vermaelen was brought on for Umtiti, who has shone this season but could now miss Barca’s El Clasico trip to Real Madrid on December 23.

It was Barca’s other stalwart centre-back who should have restored the hosts’ lead when Gerard Pique hit the outside of the post from another defence-splitting Messi pass.

Unfortunately for Barca, Messi’s best chance of a winner was with his head as he nodded wide when Denis Suarez’s blocked shot fell his way.

Yet, Barca also had their goalie to thank as Ter Stegen’s outstretched hand denied Pione Sisto the winner two minutes from time.

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Real Madrid coming up against their new goalkeeper and other La Liga talking points

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Kepa Arrizabalaga

Barcelona look to extend their four-point lead at the top of La Liga against an old friend turned foe in Celta Vigo coach Juan Carlos Unzue on Saturday.

Meanwhile, Real Madrid travel to a struggling Athletic Bilbao with their eyes firmly on one of Athletic’s rising stars.

Here, we examine five things to look out for in La Liga this weekend.

BALE’S FALSE ‘FRESH START’

Gareth Bale’s emergence off the bench to save a faltering young Real side from embarrassment against third-tier Fuenlabrada in the Copa del Rey earned the Welshman rave reviews in the Spanish press on Wednesday.

Marca declared Bale had been handed a “fresh start” after a year dogged by a series of injuries.

Yet, he could be absent again at San Mames due to a niggling calf problem having missed training for the past two days.

Celebrating a goal with his team mates: Gareth Bale

Celebrating a goal with his team mates: Gareth Bale

REAL’S NEW KEPA?

Unlike Bale, Keylor Navas didn’t help Madrid on his return to action after six weeks out by turning Fuenlabrada’s opener into his own net in midweek.

Kiko Casilla was also at fault for Malaga’s second goal at the Bernabeu last weekend, intensifying Real’s search for a new goalkeeper.

According to reports, the new man will be Athletic’s Kepa Arrizabalaga, who has been one of few shining lights in a hugely disappointing season for Bilbao.

Arrizabalaga didn’t feature as the Basques did suffer Cup humiliation at the hands of tiny islanders Formentera on Wednesday, edging coach Jose Angel Ziganda closer to the sack.

A Real Madrid target: Kepa Arrizabalaga

A Real Madrid target: Kepa Arrizabalaga

A CELTA CURSE OR CRUISE FOR BARCA

Unzue returns to the Camp Nou hoping to continue Celta’s record of beating Barca once in each of the three previous seasons when he was assistant to Luis Enrique.

Celta’s daring approach against the Catalans in recent years has though had mixed success.

Whilst they have twice hit Barca for four at home, in their last two visits to the Catalan capital Celta have been smashed 6-1 and 5-0.

Will look to secure three points: Barcelona

Will look to secure three points at home: Barcelona

LAS PALMAS LONGING FOR SETIEN

Las Palmas are looking for already their third coach of the season after Pako Ayestaran was sacked on Thursday.

Ayestaran was only appointed in September when Manuel Marquez resigned.

How the Islanders must wish they had held on to the man they will face this weekend back when Quique Setien brings Real Betis to the Canary Islands.

Setien not only kept Las Palmas up in the previous two seasons, but did so thanks to some thrilling attacking football.

That has continued at Betis, whose 13 La Liga games this season have produced 50 goals. However, contractual differences with the board saw Setien walk out in the summer and left Las Palmas in the lurch.

Quique Setien

Instrumental in keeping Real Betis at 8th in the table: Quique Setien

VALENCIA BEGIN LIFE WITHOUT GUEDES

Valencia kept their unlikely title challenge alive by holding Barca at home last weekend.

That point came at a cost, thought, as PSG loanee Goncalo Guedes suffered a broken toe that is expected to keep the Portuguese winger out for the rest of the year.

Guedes’s three goals and five assists have played a huge part in Valencia’s revival.

However, a kind fixture list during Guedes’s absence offers Valencia hope with a visit to Getafe on Sunday followed by Celta, Eibar and Villarreal before the winter break.

Suffered a broken toe: Goncalo Guedes

Suffered a broken toe: Goncalo Guedes

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