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Diego Simeone’s side may well go back to basics after a mixed start to the season, so defensive solidity could be the order of the day.
Back Atletico Madrid to keep a clean sheet (+100) against Celta Vigo this weekend.
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Atletico Madrid finds itself in a curious position at the start of each La Liga season. The target is invariably the title, which they won in 2014 and 2021. But if Diego Simeone’s side falls short of that objective, they can never be judged too harshly. After all, they are competing with two of the biggest clubs in world soccer, Real Madrid and Barcelona. Spain’s big two have considerably more resources than Atletico, who have upset the apple cart twice in the last decade but cannot be expected to obliterate it.
Only four rounds of fixtures have elapsed in Spain, so it would be premature to draw hard and fast conclusions from what we have seen so far. Yet the early evidence suggests that Atletico will struggle to keep pace with Real Madrid and Barcelona in 2022/23. The two Clasico rivals have started the season strongly, amassing 12 and 10 points respectively. Madrid were too strong for the rest of the division last term, while Barcelona strengthened substantially over the summer.
Atletico have found things tougher in the first few weeks of the campaign, which will be more hectic than ever on either side of the 2022 World Cup, scheduled to take place in November and December due to the climatic conditions of host nation Qatar. Atletico eased to a 3-0 victory over Getafe on an opening day, but a 2-0 home loss to Villarreal gave them a rude awakening on matchday two. Since then Atletico have scraped a 1-0 victory over Valencia and drawn 1-1 with Real Sociedad.
The fixture computer handed them a more difficult start than they would have liked, with Valencia, Villarreal and Real Sociedad among the contenders for Champions League qualification. But the underlying statistics illustrate Atletico’s struggles. Expected goals difference, which rates the quality of chances a team creates and concedes, places them eighth in the division. Simeone has work to do.
After back-to-back 17th-place finishes in 2018/19 and 2019/20, Celta Vigo appears to have ditched their status as a relegation candidate. Eduardo Coudet led them to eighth two seasons ago (they finished just five points short of Europa League qualification) and then 11th last term. The fact that Celta’s aim is to return to the top half this campaign shows the progress they have made under Coudet.
Celta have made a decent start towards that end. They were thrashed 4-1 by Real Madrid on matchday two, but anything a team like Celta gets against the big three is a bonus. They have taken seven points from the other nine on offer, including consecutive victories over Girona and Cadiz.
It is true that Celta are expected to beat such opponents, but they have not always done so in the past. Iago Aspas, whose status as a club legend was long ago assured, has already scored five goals. Arguably no other player in La Liga is as important to his team as Aspas, without whom Celta would probably have been relegated to the Segunda Division a few years back. Do not bet against him challenging Karim Benzema and Robert Lewandowski to be the La Liga top scorer.
Whenever Atletico are going through a sticky spell, they usually go back to basics. Simeone is not as defensive a coach as his handful of detractors claim, but he does have a tendency towards caution and that often manifests itself after runs of indifferent form. Atletico’s success during his tenure has been built on a solid defensive unit, which will again be the foundation to anything positive that the Colchoneros achieve this season.
There is another reason why Atletico have not been as free-scoring as they might otherwise have been so far this season. Antoine Griezmann remains one of their best players at the age of 31, but he is yet to start a league game despite being fully fit.
That is because the France international is on loan from Barcelona, and a clause in the deal states that Atletico would be obliged to purchase him for €40m if he plays a certain percentage of minutes. The club has reservations about such a deal, and Griezmann has therefore been used exclusively as a second-half substitute in Atletico’s four matches to date. It is an unsatisfactory situation and one which does not aid the Colchoneros’ attacking efforts.
All in all, we should not expect a free-flowing encounter full of goals when these two teams go head-to-head on Sunday. Simeone will preach the importance of keeping things tight at the back; a clean sheet, after all, would mean Atletico only need to score once to win. Back them to shut out Celta Vigo at the Civitas Metropolitano.
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|Atletico Madrid vs Celta Vigo
|Civitas Metropolitano, Madrid, Spain
|Sunday, 11 September 2022, 12.30 PM EST
|How to watch
Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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