Based on their records coming into this fixture, the Valencia – Atlético Madrid Saturday fixture did not look to be an appetizing match, but knowing each team’s penchant to go forward, their stature in Spanish football, and their performances over the past few years, this game was the one to watch, and they did not disappoint.
From the opening moments, the predictable and customary caginess that occurs in a big match was absent as both teams looked to score immediately. Sergio Agüero obliged with a 7th minute goal whose build-up was more impressive than the actual finish. Making a run on the perimeter of the penalty area, Jurado took two defenders with him and audaciously back-heeled a pass to Diego Forlán inside the box. In plenty of space, Forlán squared a ball to Agüero who finished the attack with aplomb, and it was 0-1 to the visitors.
As is typical with this Atlético squad, a one-goal lead was not safe by any means, and Los Che responded with opportunity after opportunity without any tangible result to show for them. Atlético almost made Valencia pay for their lack of finishing in the 20th minute when Agüero intercepted a pass from Alexis at the midfield line and stormed toward the Valencia goal. Outpacing Alexis, Agüero was one on one with Valencia keeper Miguel Angel Moyà, but Agüero took the ball too close to Moyà, and he closed the angle just enough to have his shot roll by the right far post.
In a span of two minutes, Valencia showed why Atlético accumulated only two points from their first four matches. In the 25th minute, Éver Banega lofted a ball over the Atlético defense onto Pablo Hernández’s run into the penalty area. Atlético captain Antonio López was able to contest Pablo in the box, but Pablo’s touches bamboozled López, and Pablo was able to get by him and score from three yards out for the 1-1 equalizer. Two minutes later, Valencia would take the one-goal advantage when David Silva sprung David Villa open with a cutting ball through the heart of the Atlético defense. Taking a couple of dribbles into the left side of the box, Villa executed a clinical finish that explained why the big European clubs clamor for his services. As he was about to take the shot, he opened his body as if he were to go for the right far post. Atlético keeper Roberto, who is deputizing for Sergio Asenjo because of his involvement for the Spanish national team in the U-20 World Cup in Egypt, saw Villa’s body actions and leaned toward that direction. At the moment of impact, Villa closed his foot, lifted the ball to the near post, and slotted it past Roberto; Roberto thought he did everything correctly, but the brilliance of Villa made Roberto’s efforts seem feckless. The Atlético Madrid defense was supposed to be improved from last year’s forgettable fifty-seven goal tally, but thirteen goals in five matches does not bode well for an Atlético side looking to keep their Champions League spot for next year.
Throughout the rest of the match, there was always a feeling of inevitability that Valencia would concede as Atlético pressed for the second goal. With a man advantage for 65+ minutes against Sporting Gijón last Sunday, Valencia had complete control, but a 86th minute goal by Grégory ruined their 100% record and made David Villa publicly criticize manager Unai Emery’s tactics concerning their play when it was 11 vs. 10. Both teams equally fought for the next goal, with Villa hitting the post from an outrageous jumping back-heel in the 53rd minute and a trio of clear-cut goal-scoring prospects missed by Forlán, Cléber Santana, and Maxi Rodríguez.
In the latter stages of the match, Valencia continued to play a no holds barred style as they looked to salt the game away with a third goal rather than sit on the 2-1 advantage. While this strategy was commendable for its ambition rather than its cynicism, it left them with holes in the back from time to time, and Atlético capitalized in the second minute of stoppage time when Maxi scored to gain a valuable point and a 2-2 draw. Antonio López crossed from the left flank, and Alexis’ header failed to clear the ball towards the midfield. Instead, it flicked on to a wide-open Maxi, who was free on the right post to take the shot first time and beat Moyà. Valencia left back Jérémy Mathieu, who had a solid game before the second goal, was equally culpable as he fell asleep and gave Maxi the space when the ball arrived at his feet.
Usually the match of the week on paper does not fulfill its promise as such, but Valencia’s 2-2 draw with Atlético Madrid on Saturday night at the Mestalla proved its worth. With Los Colchoneros in the relegation zone because of earning two points out of the first twelve, Valencia knew to be wary of Atlético not only because of their attacking prowess but also of the wounded animal theory. In short, an animal is most dangerous when it is hurt because it will fight back with all its might just to survive. Atlético needed to embrace this attitude and that they certainly did; however, Valencia had the one-goal advantage into stoppage time and looked to win the three points. Another last stage goal concession by Valencia leaves them seven points behind Real Madrid and Barcelona, and with no signs of either club slowing down, the four points needlessly dropped against Sporting Gijón and Atlético Madrid should prove lethal in Valencia’s attempt to win La Liga for the first time since 2004 and possibly a Champions League spot.