Halloween will arrive in a few days, but for Atlético Madrid, this season has been a complete nightmare from the beginning. Los rojiblancos hit their low point with a dull thud on Saturday when they could not fend off a nine-man Mallorca team and settled for a 1-1 draw at the Vicente Calderón. Even though Abel Resino received a vote of confidence from the Atleti boardroom earlier in the season, those kinds of assurances were fleeting at best, and when Atlético delivered an impotent performance in the 4-0 thrashing at the hands of Chelsea in the UEFA Champions League, the writing was clearly on the wall for the former Atlético goalkeeper.
More often than not, a mid-season coaching change leads to a temporary spike in results. Recent examples include Espanyol when Mauricio Pochettino replaced José Manuel Esnal, Real Madrid when Juande Ramos replaced Bernd Schuster, and Abel Resino himself when he replaced Javier Aguirre in the middle of the last campaign. The jury is still out on the new Quique Sánchez Flores era, but from the showing Atlético Madrid displayed against Mallorca, Sánchez Flores has plenty of work to inspire these dispirited players.
Temporary manager Santi Denia had very little time to prepare this team after the sacking of Abel Resino, but he made a couple of adjustments to the starting eleven by preferring Raúl García over Cléber Santana in the center of midfield as well as starting eighteen year old David de Gea in goal instead of the number one Sergio Asenjo. That change did not matter much in the early parts of the match as de Gea had little to do. For the first twenty-five minutes, the atmosphere on and off the pitch was very muted. Anxiousness permeated the Vicente Calderón as the uncertainty of the future for Atlético made the supporters and the players uneasy and unenthusiastic. Then the break Atlético Madrid desperately needed fell right into their laps.
Mallorca right back Josemi, trying to prevent a Simão pass from reaching Diego Forlán, struck the ball with his bicep inside the box, and referee César Muñiz Fernández immediately pointed to the penalty spot. Having already received a yellow card earlier in the match, Muñiz Fernández awarded Josemi a second yellow card for the incident, and Mallorca was down to ten men. Forlán stepped to the mark, and…
it went wide of the post. This ominous occurrence only helped in prolonging the growing despair. With a 0-0 score line at the end of the half, the vociferous whistles rained down on their beloved Atlético, and Mallorca could not have written a better script after the unfortunate ejection of Josemi.
If Atlético Madrid did not want to take advantage of a fortuitous break, Mallorca gave them a second chance when Iván Ramis received a second yellow card for another handball inside the penalty area. The ball seemed to play the arm rather than vice versa, but nevertheless, Ramis was gone, Mallorca had to play the final 40+ minutes with only nine men, and Atlético was twelve yards away from basically sealing the match. Unfazed by his earlier penalty miss, Forlán coolly slotted the ball into the back of the net, and it was not if they would win but by how many.
Strangely, Atlético, whether by the instructions of Santi Denia or by the players’ own apprehensions, protected their 1-0 lead instead of trying to increase it. They dominated the possession, as they should with a two-man advantage, but rarely created significant goal-scoring opportunities that would ruin any chance for Mallorca to get anything out of this match. Forlán hit the target a couple of times, Simão forced Dudu Aouate into some good saves, and Cléber Santana’s header from a set piece traveled inches over the crossbar, but their attacking play, as a whole, appeared stunted compared to normal circumstances. Their careful and cautious attitude would prove costly when Mallorca amazingly equalized in the 91st minute to earn a point that should not have been there to retrieve.
From José Luis Martí’s free kick at midfield, Atlético somehow allowed Borja Valero to control the ball with his foot near the byline. Valero’s ensuing ball was meant to be a cross across the six-yard box to Pierre Webó, but in attempting to smother that cross, David de Gea allowed it to go between his legs. If the ball went straight through his legs, Webó and Atlético defender Álvaro Domínguez each would have had a 50/50 chance at it, but as the ball squeezed through de Gea’s legs, he diverted the ball off its path with his left heel into goal. Would Sergio Asenjo have committed the same error? Call it fate, destiny, the football gods, or any other supernatural event; Atlético Madrid could not win a match that Mallorca tried to give away.
As absurd as this may sound, Mallorca actually deserved to merit a result from this match. The equalizer transpired from a slice of good fortune, but their tireless work ethic and their unending belief gained many admirers, and they dug themselves out of a hole they created instead of slumping their shoulders and admitting defeat before the match was over.
What does this mean for Atlético Madrid going forward? Quique Sánchez Flores has had successful spells with Valencia and Benfica, but he faces the most challenging managing job of his career. Initially competing to retain its Champions League place, Atlético’s goals for the season need to be scaled back slightly. The sale of John Heitinga in the last minutes of the summer transfer window to Everton may not have been a glaring loss at the outset, but Atlético has employed three different right backs this season, including lifelong central defender Tomáš Ujfaluši. None filled the position adequately, and a weak link in a defensive line cannot be masked when a decent attacking team puts pressure on them.
For an attacking force that includes Argentine budding superstar Sergio Agüero, Simão Sabrosa, Maxi Rodríguez, Jurado, and current European Golden Shoe winner Diego Forlán, ten goals in eight matches in La Liga as well as zero goals in three Champions League group stage games fall well below their high expectations. The service from the midfield is of mediocre quality, and the intricate passing game in the final third lacks the fluidity that they showed last season.
While Sánchez Flores and his technical staff can work out these problems on the training ground, instilling the poise and confidence that Atlético used to possess will be their most arduous task as they try to lift los rojiblancos from the dregs of their current form. Without these intangible traits at full tilt, they will continue to surrender meekly against their future opponents. All is doom and gloom at the moment, but fortunately, they will not have too much time to mull over their soul-crushing draw as they have their Round of 32 Copa del Rey cup tie against Segunda División B side UD Marbella on Tuesday. Atlético Madrid will likely use many of their young and bench players against Marbella, but any potential win at this point can be used as a confidence-booster in their long journey from the abyss.
Fueras del Juego
– It is more of relief than congratulations for Villarreal as they recorded their first victory of the season 2-1 over Málaga on Sunday. It was also a first for Villarreal record signing Nilmar as he netted his first La Liga goal for the club.
– El Golazo de la Jornada goes to Pablo Hernández, whose forty-yard effort floated over a humiliated Diego Alves as Valencia beat Almería at the Estadio Mediterráneo 0-3 on Sunday. Alves was clearly out of position, but the foresight and technical skill necessary to execute the shot by Pablo was exquisite.
– Before the Racing de Santander – Osasuna match, there was a minute of silence for the recent death of José Manuel López Alonso, former president of Racing. Near the end of the minute, referee Eduardo Iturralde Gonzalez was about to blow the whistle when he realized the minute was not quite over. Luckily, he did not blow the whistle at that moment, but his facial expressions of surprise and embarrassment were priceless.