Is Alvaro Morata good enough to lead the line for Atletico Madrid?

Atletico Madrid have turned their season around somewhat since the resumption of the Liga season, with a strong run of form carrying them up to third place in the table. While the capital club not so long ago looked set to miss out on a place in the top four and Champions League qualification, they are now within touching distance of pulling up a seat at European club football’s top table again.

Of course, Atleti wanted much more than just a top four place this season. The original aim was to challenge Barcelona and Real Madrid for the title. Both sides are going through generational transitions and so many saw the door to be open for Atletico Madrid. They too have gone through a transitional season, though.

The conversion of Marcos Llorente into an attacker over the last few weeks has been a revelation. The former Real Madrid man has been exceptionally influential higher up the pitch, hitting a rich vein of form that started with his brace in Atletico Madrid’s Champions League win over Liverpool at Anfield before the coronavirus shutdown struck.

Alongside Llorente, Diego Simeone has largely favoured Diego Costa. The former Chelsea striker looks to have found fitness and form again since the restart, with Simeone using Costa as a battering ram to use next to the more creative Llorente. So what place does Alvaro Morata now have at the Wanda Metropolitano?

The 27-year-old has been rotated in and out of Simeone’s side over the last few weeks, vindicating the decision to hand him a start against Real Mallorca with a brace in a 3-0 win. Before that, though, Morata had been struggling for form, with his only goal since the restart coming in a 5-0 demolition of Osasuna.

There’s no suggestion that Simeone will look to move Morata on, with the striker only signing permanently from Chelsea in the January window, but there are questions over who will lead Atletico Madrid in the long-term. Edinson Cavani, who is now a free agent after leaving Paris Saint-Germain, has been strongly linked with a move to the club. Would Morata be knocked further down the pecking order in the case of Cavani’s arrival? Is the Spanish international good enough to be Atleti’s first choice centre forward? And if he is, how will he fit in?

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Thibaut Courtois has become the ‘Galactico’ goalkeeper Real Madrid wanted

For a long time, it seemed to be in David De Gea’s destiny that he would one day be presented to the Santiago Bernabeu as a Real Madrid goalkeeper. Were it not for a faulty fax machine, the Manchester United shot-stopper would have signed for the Spanish giants in the summer of 2015.

In the end, though, Real Madrid signed another former Atletico Madrid goalkeeper, with Thibaut Courtois joining Los Blancos two summers ago. At the time, many saw the Belgian’s addition as unnecessary. Keylor Navas was widely regarded as one of the best goalkeepers in the game. What’s more, the Costa Rican was a favourite with the club’s fans.

Initially, Courtois struggled. The pressure of playing for Real Madrid, in front of one of the most demanding fanbases in world football, appeared to get to him, turning in a number of less-than-convincing performances. Now, though, Courtois has grown into his role. He has become the ‘Galactico’ goalkeeper Real Madrid wanted for a number of years.

Real Madrid’s defence has been key to their challenge at the top of the Spanish Liga table this season and Courtois has more than played his role in that. In the early days, the likes of Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane looked unsettled with the Belgian behind them. They were more comfortable with Navas as their goalkeeper.

The relationship between Real Madrid’s number one and the centre backs in front of him has improved a lot since then, though. Ramos and Varane are now the strongest defensive pairing in the Spanish game, but without a solid goalkeeper like Courtois behind them they wouldn’t be so formidable.

“I’m happy with him and I’m sure he’s happy with the game he put in,” Zidane said about Courtois after a particularly impressive performance from the Belgian earlier in the season. “He’s our goalkeeper, we’re happy with him. We have to keep this up, keeping cleans sheets… He’s my keeper, for me he’s the best, no doubt about it.”

La Liga is awash with world class goalkeepers at the moment. Jan Oblak and Marc-Andre Ter Stegen are among the very best in the game right now. Some might even rank them as number one and number two. Courtois, however, has joined that sort of company this summer with his performances for Real Madrid.

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Are Real Madrid more comfortable at the Estadio Alfredo di Stefano?

At first, it was something of a novelty, but the sight of Real Madrid playing home games at the Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano while the Santiago Bernabeu is being redeveloped has become a familiar one over the last few weeks, with Zinedine Zidane’s side winning four from four games they have played at their home from home.

Previously only used for youth games and Castilla fixtures, Real Madrid’s training ground stadium in Valdebebas has hosted the Liga leaders as they chase down only their second Spanish title in the last eight years. Zidane and his players have looked at ease in these surroundings.

It is, after all, where they train every day. There is a luxury hotel on site for Real Madrid’s players to stay overnight should they want to relax the night before the game and not have the worry of a commute into the centre of the city. Zidane has got his players into a routine of walking over to the stadium from their lodgings on the other side of the complex.

It’s all very leisurely and that has relaxation has been evident in the performances Real Madrid have turned in at their temporary home since the resumption of the Spanish league season. This begs the question – are Real Madrid more comfortable at the Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano than they have been in recent times at the Santiago Bernabeu?

The Santiago Bernabeu might be the club’s historic and spiritual home, but there is a fear factor to playing there – for home players as well as those visiting. Ask Gareth Bale about that fear factor. He has experienced it first hand over the last few years. The historic venue is a footballing coliseum, but the casualties are often Real Madrid’s own players.

The rural, lowkey surroundings of the Valdebebas training complex have eased Real Madrid back into a title race that, at the time of La Liga’s resumption, looked destined to go down to the wire. It would have been understandable had Zidane and his players felt the pressure, but that pressure hasn’t been evident in their recent performances. Real Madrid will return to the Santiago Bernabeu and their world will regain some sense of normalcy, but for now the Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano seems to be the best home for them.

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Griezmann’s dream Barca move has turned into a nightmare

Poor old Antoine Griezmann. What on the face of it was a dream move to Barcelona, has turned into a nightmare.

Against his old club, Atletico Madrid, earlier this week, the €120m man didn’t even get on the pitch until injury time.

That followed a cursory five minutes extra during the previous game against Celta Vigo, a period in which he was at fault for Celta’s late equaliser. Continue reading

Zinedine Zidane deserves more credit for turning Real Madrid around

He is the most successful manager in the history of the Champions League, becoming the only coach to win the European Cup three times by leading Real Madrid to a victory over Liverpool in Kiev two years ago. And yet Zinedine Zidane, as he left the Santiago Bernabeu in the summer of 2018, was still seen as a somewhat fortunate figure.

The Frenchman, they claimed, was fortunate to preside over the strongest team in European football. Anyone could succeed at Real Madrid, they said. Of course, this theory was blown out of the water when, with largely the same squad, Julen Lopetegui and then Santi Solari floundered as Zidane’s successors the very next season.

This prompted Florentino Perez to lure Zidane back to the club where he has since turned things around. Barcelona’s draw against Atletico Madrid on Tuesday night means Real Madrid can go four points clear at the top of La Liga with a win over Getafe on Thursday. With just five games to play after that, this would almost certainly be an unassailable lead.

Of course, many of Real Madrid’s flaws have still been exposed over the course of the 2019/20 campaign. While this season might end up a league title in-hand, it hasn’t been a vintage season in terms of the performances produced on the pitch. But that Real Madrid still find themselves in charge of the title race underlines Zidane’s influence.

In an age of footballing ideology, Zidane has been harmed by his lack of a defining managerial identity. Unlike the likes of Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and even Jose Mourinho, he doesn’t mould teams in one specific way. Instead, he works with what he has and adapts. That is his strength, as is winning.

Real Madrid have hit the ground running following the restart, winning all five of the games they have played. Zidane has forged a winning team from a group of players that lacked any sort of coherent approach when he returned to the Santiago Bernabeu just over a year ago. And yet still the Frenchman doesn’t get the credit he deserves. When the best coaches working in the game right now are listed, Zidane rarely emerges top. Sometimes he isn’t even mentioned at all. The results, however, prove that the Real Madrid manager should be in that discussion.

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Have Barcelona just conceded the La Liga title to Real Madrid?

Real Madrid are now the odds on favourites to win La Liga after Barcelona drew 2-2 at home against Atletico Madrid in an entertaining match.

Barcelona are looking at a hat trick of titles but their fierce rivals Real look like they will stop them. Barca have dominated in Spain of late winning 4 of the last five, in the last decade they have won 7 titles alone.

Whilst Real Madrid have dominated on the European scene in the last decade winning 4 Champions Leagues, including three in a row they have failed mostly on the domestic front. Though in 2017 they broke the Barca stranglehold by winning the title which is, up to this point, coach Zinedine Zidane’s only managerial league title.

At the beginning of the season with Zidane coming back and the soap opera of Gareth Bale will he won’t he leave it was thought that Real were going to experience a season of transition, however they look stun to set everyone if they can wrap up the title this season. It could well go amongst Zidane’s very best achievements of his glittering career given that many thought Madrid could be playing second fiddle to not only Barcelona but Atletico Madrid also.

As it stands Real are top by just one point but they have a game extra to play which takes place on Thursday, July 2nd. It is a home game against Getafe which they will be expected to win with ease.

Win that and they will go 4 points clear with just five games left to play. Barca have been a mess lately where they have drawn 3 of their last four games and dropped vital points. In the game against Atletico there was 3 penalties, one for Lionel Messi but Saul converted 2 goals from the spot for Atletico and that was enough to take 2 points from Barcelona. Indeed Atletico then had a chance to win the game and put even more misery on Barca.

If another clasico remained between the two clubs then the league would not feel as over as it does now. At least then Barca could stake their claim and give it one last try. But the two teams have already met each other. Real’s remaining games all look winnable and yet of course you never quite know what will happen. Lose to Getafe tomorrow and everything changes again. But for now it looks like Real are in the driving seat to win their 34th Spanish title.

 

 

Has Samuel Umtiti played his last game for Barcelona?

Unless Barcelona suffer a spate of injuries in the centre of defence over the next couple of games, it’s hard to see where Samuel Umtiti gets a look in after his horrific performance against Celta Vigo on Saturday.

The Frenchman was once an undisputed starter for the Catalans but hasn’t been the same since sustaining a knee injury which he decided to treat holistically rather than allowing Barca’s club doctors to sort the problem out. Continue reading

Atletico Madrid finally on the road to salvaging their season

The picture was bleak for Atletico Madrid as they returned to action after a three-month hiatus due to the coronavirus shutdown. Diego Simeone’s side had endured a difficult campaign and faced an uphill battle to just finish in La Liga’s top four, securing their place in next season’s Champions League.

Now, though, things look a lot better. Atletico Madrid have found a vein of form, winning four of the five games they have played since La Liga’s return to lift themselves up to third place in the table. With the end of the season now coming into sight it appears the capital club will once again have a seat at the top table of the European game next season.

A few tweaks from Simeone have contributed to this change in fortune. Of course, the faltering form of those around Atletico Madrid has helped, with Real Sociedad and Getafe in particular struggling to pick up where they off in March, but the Argentine coach deserves credit for the changes he has made.

One major tweak has seen Marcos Llorente been converted into something of an attacker. Signed from Real Madrid last season, Llorente was initially used as a holding midfielder. His performance at Anfield, scoring twice to knock Liverpool out of the Champions League at the last 16 stage, seemingly opened Simeone’s mind to his attacking capabilities.

Llorente has been pushed higher up the pitch and has given Atletico Madrid a creative presence that they were previously lacking in the final third. His new role has added a new dimension to Simeone’s side, opening up space around the edge of the opposition box and in the penalty area. Atleti are a better balanced side now than they were at any other stage of the season.

Diego Costa has also found some form having had three full months to rest up, while Atletico Madrid’s defence is doing a better job of defending set pieces, giving Simeone a bedrock to build his team upon. All of a sudden, there is a structure and form to Atletico Madrid’s play again. They are a team unit again.

Of course, even if Atletico Madrid finish in the top four, this season cannot be considered a success. They targeted silverware before the start of the 2019/20 campaign. But they are finally on the road to salvaging something and giving themselves a platform again.

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Karim Benzema-Eden Hazard partnership has changed the picture for Real Madrid

Something has changed at the Santiago Bernabu since the resumption of the Spanish Liga season – or the Estadio Alfredo di Stefano as Real Madrid’s home stadium is until the end of the 2019/20 campaign. They have taken their time, but Zinedine Zidane’s side have finally found their groove.

Indeed, Los Blancos have won all four of the matches they have played since the return of La Liga to rise to the top of the table. Victory over bottom side Espanyol on Sunday will see them go two points clear of Barcelona, putting them in pole position to win over their second league title in eight years.

There have been a number of different factors behind this resurgence, but the developing partnership between Karim Benzema and Eden Hazard has fundamentally changed the landscape for the club. This is the duo around which Zidane now seemingly plans on building his entire side around.

Real Madrid have struggled for attacking cohesion ever since the moment Cristiano Ronaldo swapped the Spanish capital for Turin, joining Juventus in the summer of 2018. Benzema picked up some of the slack somewhat last season, but Los Blancos struggled to fill the void left by their record top scorer.

Hazard was signed as the heir to Ronaldo, but the Belgian is a very different sort of player. It wasn’t clear until a few weeks where exactly he would fit into the Real Madrid team, with injuries fragmenting his first season in the Spanish capital. Now, though, the picture is much clearer.

Benzema and Hazard operate on the same wavelength. They have only been teammates for a year, not even a full season yet, but they recognise each others’ runs, each others’ movements. Some players just get one and other, and Benzema and Hazard certainly seem to be among them. Their partnership seems natural, as if it comes easily to them.

If Real Madrid are to clinch the championship, dethroning Barcelona as the kings of Spanish football, it will likely be on the back of Benzema and Hazard’s relationship. Others are contributing, with Marco Asensio back from injury, Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane forming a defensive wall at the back and Luka Modric back in form, but it’s the Belgian and the Frenchman at the head of the attack driving Los Blancos forward.

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Could Cristiano Ronaldo return to Real Madrid?

As often as it had been rumoured, few believed Cristiano Ronaldo would actually leave Real Madrid in the summer of 2018. Most thought the Portuguese forward was merely agitating for a new contract when towards the end of the 2017/18 season he started hinting that an exit from the Santiago Bernabeu could be in the offing.

Ronaldo wasn’t bluffing, though, and left the Spanish capital to sign for Juventus in what was, at the time, one of the most unexpected transfers of recent times. It appeared to be a good fit. Juve wanted a superstar who could help deliver them the Champions League and Ronaldo was a five-time winner of European club football’s biggest prize.

In Turin, though, Ronaldo’s levels have slipped. He is still a hardened goalscorer, scoring 44 goals over the last two seasons, but he feels somewhat peripheral at Juventus. At Real Madrid, he had an entire team built around him. They played to his every strength. He doesn’t have that luxury in Italy and it has manifested itself in a lot of detached performances.

This has led to some recent speculation that Ronaldo could end up back at Real Madrid. Juventus have been badly hit by the financial knock-on of the global coronavirus pandemic and might now have to rid their books of Ronaldo’s astronomical salary. And if Ronaldo is made to leave Italy the Santiago Bernabeu might be the best place for him.

The argument could be made that Los Blancos have moved on without the 35-year-old. Real Madrid are in good shape for the title at the top of La Liga, with Karim Benzema and Eden Hazard forging a partnership that has filled the void that was left by Ronaldo at the club. Zinedine Zidane has, finally, taken them forward.

And yet there remains a sense that Ronaldo was meant to stay at Real Madrid. It is the club of his greatest legacy, the club where he achieved the most. The more that passes, it becomes clearer that the Portuguese’s move to Juventus was an ill-judged mistake, even if he is to lift a second successive Scudetto this season. There could still be scope for him to correct that mistake, though. There might still be a place for him at the Santiago Bernabeu, both in Zidane’s team and in the hearts of the club’s fans.

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