In 2001, Atletico Madrid equalled a club record – of the wrong kind. In their first season in Spain’s second tier since the 1930s, Los Colchoneros finished fourth to equal their lowest ever league position. Only five years earlier, they’d won the double, but off-field turmoil plunged the club into darkness around the turn of the century.
Fast-forward almost 20 years and Atletico are enjoying consistency the like of which they’ve never known, finishing third or higher in eight straight La Liga campaigns. In his tenth full season in charge, Diego Simeone has his side on course to reach 99 points – one shy of the La Liga record shared by Barcelona and mutual Madrid enemies Real. Needless to say, their so-far brilliant 2020/21 has been built on the extremely hard-working, robotically executed defensive approach that has come to define the functional and feisty Argentine’s reign in the Spanish capital.
Atleti may have had to come from behind beat Valencia 3-1 on Saturday, but Uros Racic’s goal was just the eighth they’ve conceded in 18 league games. As if that wasn’t staggering enough, one of those eight was a penalty and two were own goals. They’ve let in just three goals from open play. For comparison, the next best defence in La Liga (Real Madrid’s) has conceded 16 goals in 19 games – a better record than most title challengers in Europe’s top five leagues but made to look second-rate by their rivals’ freakish numbers in that department.
What makes all of this even more impressive is that Simeone has recently deviated from his trusty 4-4-2/4-4-1-1, an outlier in Spain but the system which took Atleti to a tenth Spanish title in 2014 and all-Madrid Champions League finals in 2014 and 2016. The 50-year-old has switched to a 3-5-2 – or variants of – potentially to allow him to get the most out of Kieran Trippier, Yannick Carrasco and Renan Lodi as wing-backs.
That system, incorporating three of Stefan Savic, Jose Gimenez, Mario Hermoso and Felipe as centre-backs, in front of arguably the world’s best goalkeeper in Jan Oblak, only seems to have made Atleti all the more formidable in a defensive sense. Meanwhile, at the other end, Luis Suarez has scored 12 goals in 14 starts since signing from Barcelona in September – quite an improvement on Alvaro Morata’s seven by the same stage last season, the first in which Los Rojiblancos went without a 20-goal striker since Fernando Torres’ first spell at the club.
Given that Atletico sit seven points clear at the top with a game in hand over Real – who, typically, are the only team to take points off them since early October, winning 2-0 at the Bernabeu last month – it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that they have one hand on the title already. Their extreme stinginess is domination of a different kind. Real may have been crowned champions last season with an Atletico-esque record of 70 goals for, 25 against, but they still only finished five points clear of Barcelona. At the rate things are going – Atletico have won their last seven as Real have dropped points against relegation battlers Elche and Osasuna, as well as losing to semi-professional Alcoyano in one of the biggest Copa del Rey upsets of all time – it’s going to take some serious force to topple Simeone and his reinforced red and white wall.
Elsewhere in La Liga
Two goals from Karim Benzema helped Real thrash struggling Alaves 4-1 for their biggest win of the season and keep up their league-best away record. Meanwhile, Barca, who were without Lionel Messi following his sending off in their Supercopa de España defeat to Athletic Bilbao, saw off Elche thanks to goals from Frenkie de Jong and Riqui Puig.
Sevilla remain fourth after a 3-0 victory over Cadiz, with Villareal and Real Sociedad losing ground on the Champions League as they drew with Huesca and Real Betis respectively.
Manuel Neuer broke Oliver Kahn’s Bundesliga clean sheet record by keeping his 197th as Bayern Munich romped to a 4-0 win at rock-bottom Schalke. Bayern remain on course for a ninth straight title after stretching their lead at the top to seven points, helped by defeats for chasers RB Leipzig, who went down 3-2 to second-bottom Mainz, and Leverkusen, who lost 1-0 at home to Wolfsburg and are now level on points with them as a result.
Gladbach beat Dortmund 4-2 in a thrilling battle of the Borussias, in which Erling Haaland scored his 13th and 14th goals of the season. The Foals have moved up to fifth, while Dortmund now find themselves down in seventh.
Luka Jovic netted for Eintracht Frankfurt for a third time since rejoining on loan from Real Madrid earlier in the month. Eintracht climbed two places to sixth by sweeping aside Arminia Bielefeld 5-1.
A.C. Milan lost just their second league game of 2020/21 as Atalanta moved up to fifth with a 3-0 at the San Siro. However, the Rossoneri held on to top spot as Inter dropped points by drawing 0-0 away to Udinese.
Juventus bounced back from their loss to Inter by beating Bologna 2-0, but they remain fourth – although they do have a game in hand on Roma, who came out on the right side of a dramatic 4-3 with Spezia.
Napoli succumbed to a 3-1 defeat at Hellas Verona but remain within touching distance of the top four, while goals from Ciro Immobile and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic made it five straight wins in league and cup for Lazio as they edged out Sassuolo 2-1. Lazio stay seventh and level with Napoli, two points from fourth.
PSG and Lille remain deadlocked in France’s tightest title race in years. Both sides won to move to 45 points from 21 games, PSG defeating ten-man Montpellier 4-0 with goals from Neymar and Mauro Icardi and a brace for Kylian Mbappe, Lille recording a 1-0 win at Lille thanks to Canada international Jonathan David’s first-half strike.
Elsewhere, Lyon thumped St Etienne 5-0 away from home in the Derby Rhone-Alpes to remain hot on the heels of the top two. Monaco stay fourth following a 3-1 success over Marseille.
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