In a weekend that basically saw the La Liga title race turned on its head, Atletico Madrid missed an opportunity to close the gap on Real Madrid and Barcelona by giving up a draw at home to Valencia.
Diego Simeone’s men had taken a first half lead through Koke who, with a little help from Tiago, got onto the end of a set-piece delivery from Gabi to put Atleti ahead with just over half an hour gone by.
Normally you’d expect Atletico to go on to win after taking the lead. Since Simeone’s arrival, the Los Colchoneros have proved masterful at managing out 1-0 leads. They give nothing away, especially at the Calderon, and as their opponents become increasingly frustrated, Atleti often strike again. This season they’ve run up several high score lines on lesser La Liga opponents, something they seldom did last year. However it was not to be on Sunday. It would be Valencia who would strike late through Mustafi, who equalized with just over 10 minutes to go.
Minutes earlier, Atleti had spurned a chance to put the game to bed when Tiago rocketed a close-range shot off the crossbar. Things might have turned out differently had Antoine Griezmann, Atleti’s most in-form striker, been available. But the Frenchman was serving a suspension and Simeone curiously chose to start Fernando Torres and leave Mario Mandzukic on the bench. Torres put in a good shift before eventually making way for Mandzukic. But the Croatian failed to significantly impact proceedings, despite having a physical style that would have seemed suitable to the confrontational nature of the match.
In the end, both sides had to settle for a share of the points. On Monday, Simeone claimed all of Atleti’s objectives for the season were still attainable. But on a weekend that saw Real Madrid lose to Athletic Bilbao, it’s hard to see the Valencia result as anything but an opportunity missed for Atleti. Barcelona’s win over Real Sociedad saw the Catalan outfit leapfrog Real in the standings. Simeone’s men now find themselves seven points behind the new league leaders and six behind Real Madrid in second place.
Atletico have 12 more matches to play in La Liga. They look winnable for the most part. But on current form, it’s difficult to imagine Barcelona dropping too many points. Real Madrid on the other hand, look vulnerable. A loss in the upcoming El Clasico against Barcelona at the Camp Nou later this month could effectively knock them out of the title race.
While closing the gap looks like a tall order for Atletico Madrid, these are the kinds of scenarios Simeone does seem to thrive on. While attention is focused on the two league frontrunners, he’ll be diligently going about his business in preparation for the next time either of them trips up. Let us hope for Atletico Madrid’s sake, that the next time they have such a golden opportunity they capitalize on it.