Make no mistake – Atletico Madrid are La Liga title contenders after they downed a dangerous Sevilla side 3-0 at the Sanchez Pizjuan on Sunday night.
Despite winning the Spanish title 15 months ago, Diego Simeone’s men are rarely afforded even an after-thought in the vast majority of title race predictions, which are overwhelmingly dominated by Barcelona and Real Madrid.
But Atletico once again demonstrated they should be taken deadly seriously as credible title challengers. They rode their luck at times, true, withstanding some intense pressure from the marauding hosts at the start of the second half.
But Atletico’s ability to grind out victories through determination and organisation cannot be doubted, and their prospects for the season look highly promising indeed.
Sevilla, giving a debut to new signing Fernando Llorente, started on the front foot as Coke and Grzegorz Krychowiak forced Jan Oblak into early saves.
Atletico then got into their stride and grabbed the ascendancy, with Tiago and the outstanding Antoine Griezmann both going close.
Sevilla were largely playing long balls in the hope of creating openings for Llorente, but Atletico were controlling the game with classy midfielder Oliver Torres and Griezmann always looking dangerous.
Jackson Martinez Gol. Beauty pic.twitter.com/QRZMZKfYZz
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And Griezmann was inevitably involved when Atletico broke the deadlock, batting hard for a long ball and, despite being on the floor, somehow improvising a pass to Koke who poked a scrappy but precise first-time shot into the net.
Sevilla piled forward after the break, with Atletico’s defence forced into a series of last-ditch challenges and clearances. Coke forced a save from Oblak and Llorente should have grabbed a debut goal but missed his team’s best chance by shooting wide.
Atletico then pounced to make the game safe as captain Gabi unleashed an ambitious long-range strike, which took a wicked deflection off Krychowiak and slid into the bottom left corner.
The scoreline was given an unmerited gloss when with five minutes remaining, Jackson Martinez eased home a perfect 20-yard left-footed strike for his first goal in Atletico colours.
Thomas Vermaelen is determined to continue proving his worth after scoring his first goal for Barcelona to settle Saturday’s tight encounter with Malaga at the Nou Camp.
The reigning champions were frustrated by several saves from visiting keeper Carlos Kameni, who denied Lionel Messi alone on four separate occasions as Barca struggled to make the breakthrough.
But the home side eventually grabbed the points with a strike from Vermaelen inside the final 20 minutes, with the Belgian defender latching onto a loose ball following a half-cleared cross and swiping home a fierce left-footed strike.
And Vermaelen has now pledged to use his match-winning performance as a launching pad for his Nou Camp career, after missing nearly the whole of his first season in Spain through injury.
“I couldn’t prove what I’m about last year,” he said. “People don’t see us train so fans didn’t know me and last year was really hard for me.”
Vermaelen has earned a place in the starting XI as a result of Gerard Pique’s four-game suspension, with boss Luis Enrique selecting the Belgian ahead of other options Marc Bartra and Jeremy Mathieu.
And he is delighted to have rewarded Enrique with a decisive intervention on Saturday, saying: “Scoring my first goal was very special, particularly because it served to give the team the three points.
“The gaffer giving me these games means a lot. I’m very happy about that.”
The central defender celebrated his goal in notably understated fashion considering the matchwinning importance of the strike and the fact it was his first for the club.
But having netted his last goal way back in December 2012, in Arsenal’s infamous League Cup defeat against Bradford, he joked: “I didn’t celebrate because I’m not used to scoring goals so I didn’t know what to do!”
Team-mate Neymar, meanwhile, has dismissed far-fetched reports linking him with a move to Manchester United after returning to action following a bout of illness.
The Brazilian winger said: “I want to stay at Barcelona, no matter how many million pound offers come from England. The people at Barca can be calm.”
Rafa Benitez hopes Real Madrid can enjoy a tranquil international break after seeing his team responded to their critics in emphatic fashion with a 5-0 thrashing of Real Betis on Saturday night.
After being held to a goalless draw in their season opener against Sporting Gijon the previous weekend, Los Blancos had been under scrutiny in the build-up to the game with particular concern raised about their lack of goalscoring.
However, braces for Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez, along with a strike for the fit-again Karim Benzema, dispelled the notion that Benitez’s team will struggle for goals.
And the manager was delighted with the nature of his team’s victory, saying: “What pleases me most is scoring five goals. “When you score three, what you’re looking for then is to not concede and to continue threatening in attack. We lost our concentration a few times but kept on attacking and that’s what I liked the most.”
On an individual level, Bale did the most to stabilise his position in the team by netting an early opener with a header before completing the scoring with a long-range thunderbolt, as well as delivering the cross for Benzema’s goal shortly after half-time.
However, the Welshman was outshone by a superb display from James, who scored two eye-catching goals – a direct angled free-kick and a spectacular overhead volley – and set up Bale’s opener with a perfectly measured cross.
But Benitez, who had been criticised for leaving James on the bench for the previous week’s draw in Gijon, lived up to his ‘Tinkerman’ nickname by refusing to guarantee a place in the team for the Colombian star.
“His quality is unquestionable and when we think he can bring something to the team, he will play,” he said. “If not, one of his team-mates will play. I don’t get involved in this debate about whether one player is picked over someone else.”
The only negative aspect of the evening was another blank for Cristiano Ronaldo, who has not yet got off the mark this season despite peppering former teammate Antonio Adan’s goal with shots throughout the encounter.
Benitez is unconcerned, however, shrugging: “Cristiano had the most attempts on goal of all of our players. If the team continues to create chances, his goals will come.”
James, meanwhile, rates the overhead volley, which sent his team into a 4-0 lead as one of the best goals he has ever scored. The former Porto and Monaco star boasts an impressive portfolio of spectacular strikes, including a beautiful volley for Colombia against Uruguay in last year’s World Cup Finals, which was voted the goal of the tournament.
The usually understated midfielder indulged in a rare outbreak of immodesty and he said: “That overhead volley is among my best three goals. I had never scored a goal like that before.”