Madrid (AFP) – “The gunman is back,” read the headline in Marca and Atletico Madrid fans will hope the team is too.
Luis Suarez scored twice, including a 90th-minute winner, to complete a late turnaround against Getafe on Tuesday and return the reigning champions to the top of the La Liga table.
They would quickly surrender first place to Real Madrid, who put six past Mallorca a day later, but the sight of Suarez settling games again rekindled memories of what took Atleti to the title three months ago.
Suarez’s 21 goals were the driving force but there have been concerns about the Uruguayan this season, his fitness, sharpness and ability to stoke the fires that burned so bright after his bitter departure from Barcelona.
Scruffy touches and rusty finishing have been symptomatic of Atletico overall, a flatness raising suspicions these players may lack as champions some of the hunger and tenacity they had as challengers.
“We’re not where we want to be,” said Diego Simeone on Tuesday.
Atletico can still defend – they have conceded five times in their opening seven games – and their knack of snatching points in the dying minutes remains very much intact. Suarez’s late winner against Getafe came after goals in the 90th minutes against Villarreal and Espanyol.
Unlike Real Madrid and Barcelona, Atletico were bolstered not weakened in the summer transfer window, with Antoine Griezmann and Rodrigo de Paul arriving and the framework of last season’s side left almost entirely untouched.
Real Madrid might have the outstanding player in the league in Karim Benzema but Atletico arguably have the best squad. Against Athletic Club last weekend, Simeone was able to bring on Suarez, Joao Felix and Yannick Carrasco in the second half.
But while those changes revealed a strength in depth they also demonstrate some fuzzy thinking from Simeone so far, the Argentinian yet to solve a conundrum that could make or break the defence of their title.
Suarez, Felix, Griezmann and Correa is an attacking quartet that would be the envy of most teams in Europe, let alone Spain, yet none of the combinations picked have quite convinced.
Suarez was renowned at Barcelona for needing time in August and September to find fitness and sharpness, and the hope will be after his intervention against Getafe that he is almost there.
There are fewer flickers of form though from Griezmann, who is still adapting to a very different Atletico to the one that he left. He is a different player as well, with scar tissue perhaps unavoidable following a turbulent two years at Camp Nou.
– Scrutiny –
Simeone has said Felix is still getting back to his best after an ankle injury, his recovery process not helped by a petulant red card against Athletic Bilbao last weekend. Correa is trusted by his coach but lost rhythm after spending two weeks away with Argentina.
With any attacking blockage at Atletico, there is always scrutiny on Simeone too, questions about whether his systems and demands leave even the most creative talents playing with the handbrake pulled high.
He will know time is not on his team’s side either, particularly in the cases of Griezmann and Felix, who have less credit with Atletico’s supporters than they would like.
Griezmann has been whistled by the fans in each of his three appearances so far while many are starting to wonder if Felix will ever justify the 126 million euros the club spent to sign him in 2019.
“I don’t have any doubts,” said Simeone. “We’re lucky to have Griezmann. I have no doubt he’ll perform as we hope.”
Most importantly, Real Madrid are threatening to create an early gap, their 6-1 thrashing of Mallorca taking their lead to two points at the top of the table and their goal tally to 21 goals in six games, 10 more than the next best in the division.
On Saturday, Carlo Ancelotti’s team play at home to Villarreal – who are unbeaten but have drawn four out of their first five games – after Atletico play away at bottom club Alaves earlier in the day.
Barcelona host Levante on Sunday, with coach Ronald Koeman desperately needing a win to steady the ship after three games without a victory left his future in the balance.
Barca sit seventh, seven points off the lead, with games against Benfica in the Champions League and Atletico Madrid coming up next week.
Alaves v Atletico Madrid (1200), Valencia v Athletic Club (1415), Sevilla v Espanyol (1630), Real Madrid v Villarreal (1900)
Mallorca v Osasuna (1200), Barcelona v Levante (1415), Real Sociedad v Elche (1630), Rayo Vallecano v Cadiz (1630), Real Betis v Getafe (1900)
Celta Vigo v Granada (1900)
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