MADRID, Spain, Sep 14 – Atletico Madrid were billed as serious contenders to win La Liga this season but three games in and they are already playing catch-up.
A creditable draw away to Valencia was followed by a stodgy one-goal win at home to Rayo Vallecano. By the time the whistle blew on a chaotic 2-0 defeat to Celta Vigo, Barcelona and Real Madrid were readying themselves for a third win out of three.
“I’m not worried,” coach Diego Simeone said. “I’m calmer than ever because it’s a wake-up call, a call for more focus.”
It also means five points stand between Atletico and Spain’s two grandees, who have swept up 13 of the last 14 league titles, with Simeone’s surprise triumph in 2014 the anomaly.
That was Atleti’s first in 18 years and a surprise of such gigantic proportions, that even Barca’s fans applauded when it was signed off at the Camp Nou, in their own back yard.
A repeat next May would be no less impressive but certainly more believable.
In the four years since, Atletico have finished third, third, third and second, won the Europa League and gone to the final of the Champions League, only to lose to Real.
But it was their business in the summer, or rather lack of it, that deepened the sense this could again be their year. Antoine Griezmann felt like a new signing after he snubbed Barcelona – and announced it in a documentary – while the arrivals of Thomas Lemar from Monaco and Rodri from Villarreal bolstered two areas of weakness.
But defensive errors in the Super Cup win against Madrid have continued into the league, while Diego Costa, Griezmann and Lemar have yet to catch fire.
“We have lacked a little bit of precision at the end of our plays and that’s why we didn’t score against Celta,” Simeone said.
“But what is clear to me is that this start is the best thing that can happen to us.”
Atleti will surely react and there was cause for optimism too over the international break, when their midfielder Saul Niguez proved himself the standout performer across two excellent Spain victories.
But it means they can ill-afford another slip at home to Eibar on Saturday, particularly with the city derby at the Santiago Bernabeu fast approaching at the end of the month.
– Courtois or Navas? –
Their rivals could hardly have made a better opening under Julen Lopetegui, with a trip to come on Saturday to Athletic Bilbao, who will have not kicked a competitive ball in three weeks after their last match against Rayo Vallecano was postponed.
Gareth Bale extended his sensational start to the season with a brilliant goal for Wales last week and Karim Benzema also appears a player transformed under his new coach, boasting four goals in three.
The only doubt has been at the other end. If Thibaut Courtois retains his place in goal versus Bilbao, the temptation will be to conclude Lopetegui is plumping for the Belgian as his first-choice, ahead of UEFA’s recently named keeper of the year, Keylor Navas.
“It’s clear that I have two excellent solutions,” Lopetegui told Cadena SER last week. “The decision we make, it’s not a problem. We have an idea in our heads that we will not make public and we will see where it takes us.”
Luka Modric should make his second league start of the season, alongside the same clutch of Spaniards who helped inflict a 6-0 thrashing over his Croatia on Tuesday.
Ivan Rakitic may be in for similar taunting as he returns to Barcelona, who face Real Sociedad on Saturday at Anoeta.
With PSV Eindhoven to come at the Camp Nou three days later, Ernesto Valverde will have been relieved to see the likes of Lionel Messi, Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba resting up over the international period.
Huesca v Rayo Vallecano (10pm)
Atletico Madrid v Eibar (2pm), Real Sociedad v Barcelona (5:15pm), Valencia v Real Betis (7:30pm), Athletic Bilbao v Real Madrid (9:45pm)
Leganes v Villarreal (1pm), Espanyol v Levante (5:15pm), Real Valladolid v Alaves (7:30pm), Sevilla v Getafe (9:45pm)
Girona v Celta Vigo (10pm)