Atletico Madrid head into their final Champions League group game knowing a home victory over Lokomotiv Moscow will be enough to secure a place in the knockout stages.
In theory, it appears to be a straightforward fixture for Diego Simeone’s men against the already-eliminated Russian outsiders, but their poor recent form – especially in front of goal – has created a wave of pressure ahead of a must-win encounter.
And the quest for elusive goals inevitably dominates our pre-game talking points before this clash at the Wanda Metropolitano.
Starlet Felix under pressure to deliver
Joao Felix became the third most expensive footballer in history when he was captured by Atletico from Benfica for an eye-watering fee of €126 million in the summer, but so far the starlet has only partially and occasionally lived up to his sky-high fee.
The 20 year-old has scored just three goals in 13 appearances in Atletico, and although his new club’s fans were initially prepared to make allowances and grant a prolonged settling-in period to such a young player, now there is a growing sense that it’s time for Felix to justify his fee.
With Diego Costa out of action for several months, the Portugal international has the chance to cement a strike partnership with Alvaro Morata – a combination which looks good on paper but which has rarely clicked on grass.
It’s certainly far too early to suggest that Felix is a flop or that Atletico regret his purchase, but another failure in this crucial contest – against relatively weak opposition – would set alarm bells ringing that his first season in Spain could rapidly unravel into an anti-climactic disappointment.
Can Atletico break the drought?
Felix is by no means the only Atletico player struggling in the goals department, with Simeone’s men failing to score in their last three games: 1-0 losses against Juventus and Barcelona followed by Friday’s goalless draw at Villarreal, which saw them spurn several decent chances to claim victory.
Morata was on fire during the autumn, scoring in seven consecutive games between mid-October and mid-November, but he has now failed to find the target in his last 493 minutes of action for club and country. Angel Correa has scored just once all season, while wingers Vitolo (two goals) and the hugely disappointing Thomas Lemar (no goals) have also been shot-shy.
All told, Atletico have only scored more than once in six of their 21 games so far this season, leaving Simeone to face a barrage of questions over his team’s attacking problems in every press conference, with some pundits even starting to speculate that his seemingly impregnable position at the club may soon be under threat.
The feisty Argentine boss has given an outward impression of calm, insisting the goals will soon come. That needs to start happening on Wednesday night.
Faith with Lodi and Trippier?
At the other end of the field, Atletico underwent a revolution in defensive personnel during the summer, with the regular back four – in the absence of injured Stefan Savic and Jose Maria Gimenez – composed entirely of new signings.
Mario Hermoso, Felipe, Renan Lodi and Kieran Trippier have all performed well enough in front of outstanding keeper Jan Oblak, but Simeone opted to leave Trippier on the bench for Friday’s draw at Villarreal with Santiago Arias coming into the starting eleven, after Saul was preferred to Lodi at left-back for the previous weekend’s meeting with Barcelona.
Simeone’s chopping and changing of his full-back starters shows the fundamental role of the position to his philosophy. Although Trippier and Lodi are both good coming forward and cross the ball well, they do not possess the same ball-playing ability to link with midfield as their predecessors Juanfran and Filipe Luis, whose importance over the last few years is becoming even more evident since their departure.
Bombing down the flanks to whip crosses into the box is one thing, but showing composure and quality on the ball to build play from the back is another skill and so far Trippier and Lodi have not convinced in that respect. This could be an ideal game to build their confidence.
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