La Liga is officially a three horse race. Not since Javi Irrueta’s Deportivo or Los Che under Rafa Benitez have we really been able to say it without real conviction.
Seven games into the season might be jumping the gun to suggest Atletico Madrid are the real deal. After seven games in La Liga last year, Tito Vilanova’s Barcelona were immovable at the top and remained there for the rest of the season. Atletico sat below in second and looked every much La Liga runners-up but a series of 0-0 draws and defeats home and away to the big two meant Simeone had to settle for third place.
Atletico Madrid are keeping up with the league leaders Barcelona matching Tata Martino’s seven consecutive wins to put them level on points. The addition of Champions League football was clearly not a distraction from putting in a full deserved winning display against their Madrid rivals.
Inflicting Carlo Ancelotti’s side to its first home defeat for two years. Madrid were second best in almost every department. From Chelsea’s Courtois blossoming into one of the finest keepers in Europe at 21, to the talented nuisance that is Diego Costa spearheading the attack. Atletico were brilliant from back to front.
The work rate has been a significant trait of Simeone’s managerial reign as Atletico hounded Real Madrid in packs of twos and threes putting Real under pressure. When the tables were turned Atletico revelled playing under pressure effectively passing the ball in tight areas of the pitch with greater accuracy and stronger conviction. Real looked like a side still trying to find its feet under a new manager, Atletico more settled and unified as a team not just in their industry but in their anticipation of danger.
The decisive breakthrough came in the 10th minute from the form man in front of goal, Diego Costa. The Brazilian born striker with Spanish nationality has yet to pledge his national allegiance to either countries. Falcao’s one-time workhorse is now Atletico’s leading man and finished delightfully after a fine through ball from the excellent Koke.
Atletico had chances to increase their lead, Tiago losing his napping marker Isco to blaze his header over the bar. Just before half time it was Costa again from another set piece after Brazilian centre half Miranda forced a great save from Diego Lopez the Brazilian’s rebounded effort was smuggled away by the man currently keeping Iker Casillas out of the side.
Simeone’s side won key battles all over the pitch and ran the risk of pulling off an historic win with 10 men. Turan, Koke and Costa were committed in every challenge. The tactic successfully rattling a Madrid side struggling to get the likes of Ronaldo, Isco and Benzema into the game.
The Frenchman largely anonymous did produce Los Blancos best opportunities of the first half with two headers, one wide of Courtiois and the other forcing the Belgian keeper into a low save. Atletico were on top at half time and there looked to be only one winner.
Ancelotti rightfully made changes at the break, bringing Di Maria and Illarramendi off for Modric and Bale. Di Maria was just one of many in white guilty of giving away possession on too many occasions without pressure from Atletico’s chasing packs and was culpable for giving the ball to Koke to slot the ball into Diego Costa for the decisive moment in the match. Illarramendi, so formidable for Real Sociedad last season, showed why filling the Xavi Alonso-shaped void is a tall order for any player. Madrid lacked control in the middle and Modric offered that while Bale was a more direct threat from the right than Di Maria.
The expensively assembled midfield simply could not match Atletico’s quartet. Koke and Turan playing narrow helping to double up on the wide men but offering plenty of creativity for Villa and Costa. Tiago meanwhile tirelessly working, neatly threading play together alongside Gabi.
On the hour Costa should have put clear daylight between the two. Another misplaced pass from Madrid this time an unsuccessful one-two between Benzema and Isco broke quickly to David Villa who slid through Costa. The Brazilian, part bully, part precocious talent was left one on one with Lopez fumbled his first touch shooting straight at Lopez’s legs.
It wasn’t until Ancelotti’s third change bringing on Alvaro Morata for Isco did Madrid look like breaching one of the sternest defences in La Liga. With 20 minutes to change the game in Madrid’s favour, Morata’s movement and eagerness to hound Godin and Miranda created room for the likes of Bale, Ronaldo and Modric to exploit.
It was Atletico who went closest though recovering from a free-kick opportunity outside of Madrid’s box. The ball breaking to full back Felipe feeding Miranda now occupying a left wing position to arch a cross with the outside of his boot for Diego Lopez to spill, and in a manic rush of bodies eventually landing to Koke who clipped the ball agonizingly against the bar.
Morata had his moment in the 83rd minute with an acrobatic scissors kick parried by Courtois, but Real were running out of time. Modric blazed over the bar from afar, Morata caused more problems for the Atletico back four but Simeone’s side held on.
The battle had been won, in the fight for supremacy there was plenty of beautiful football on show from the other team in Madrid. After the Copa Del Rey showdown at the end of last season and Atletico’s impeccable start of the season, there is a real belief under Simeone. A belief that a new chapter in La Liga history can be written if Costa, Courtiois, Koke and company continue to go to war for their enigmatic leader.