This tie was the first real acid test of the 2016/2017 season. In Atlético, we faced our conquerors from a season ago; The team that famously stopped the MSN in last season’s UEFA Champions League semi-final. This tie gave us a look into what the takeaways of that encounter were. And with flying colours, Luis Enrique passed the test.
A tie against Diego Simeone is never a simple affair. For one, this writer has been adamant that it seems no real lessons had been learnt from that tie, other than that fatigued extraterrestrials (“extraterrestrials” being the term coined by Alexandre Lacazette of Olympique Lyon when asked to describe the three-headed beast we have up front) are harmless. Simeone is a master in finding a way to stop almost any side, especially when it really matters. However, this season, Cholo’s men have seemed to be missing that special element that has made them so famous and feared in Europe. One can’t quite put a finger on exactly what that special element may be, but it surely is missing. But like what has been the case in so many other Copa Del Rey tie’s in the Enrique era- they came, we dominated.
Well, we didn’t quite dominate in the goal-fest type of fashion. This was still a tricky tie, as much of the first half was ‘dominated’ by Atlético. Cholo was seen fuming after Yannick Carrasco had done so much work to create a well-earned shot at goal, in what probably should have opened up the scoring. Coach Unzué and Lucho seemed deep in conversation on multiple occasions in the first half. On nights like this, we really need to appreciate Sergio Busquets. Much respect must be given to the lads who were tasked with filling his void, but neither of them can execute the kind of problem-solving Busi so regularly does in ensuring the ball is moved out of our half, and into the attack. His absence led to many strange situations where rhythm was difficult to come by, let alone a string of passes deep in our half without an Atlético interception. The truth is Cholo had every right to be annoyed with his chargers, as they squandered a number of first-half chances.
Luis Suárez’s goal came at the perfect moment to end whatever hope Cholo’s men had come to Camp Nou with. Though the performance was rocky at this point, being up 3-1 on aggregate at the end of the first half, with just 45 minutes to go before another Copa final, Luis Enrique should have been a decently satisfied man. He would have been more satisfied in seeing his side start the second half with the determination to score an early second-half goal, and truly kill off the tie. However, he would have been seething in seeing Sergi Roberto given a second yellow card and effectively being sent off. Playing Atlético with eleven men is difficult enough. Playing with a man less, however, makes it that much more difficult. André Gomes had been struggling to hold Busi’s role all evening- with a man less, it was now mission impossible. Atlético threw wave after wave of attack and were possibly wrongly denied a goal, with Antoine Griezmann’s cool finish possibly falsely judged to be offside. Add that with Carrasco’s missed chance in the first half, and who knows what could have happened.
Seeing Carrasco sent off would’ve given Lucho a sigh of relief, as he was now able to give both Sergio Busquets and Andrés Iniesta a welcome return into the side. Atlético seemed to be given one last chance in the 79th minute after Kevin Gameiro was given a chance to convert a penalty which was controversially awarded from a Gerard Pique challenge. Gameiro missed this chance but was subsequently able to get his name on the scoresheet after a cool finish, to put the scoreline at 3-2 on aggregate.
This was too little too late for Cholo’s men, as Atlético only managed to play with the kind of intensity they should have played with for the entire tie in the final five minutes of the game; something which has been a theme for Cholo’s men this season- a lack of intensity.
Special mention must be made regarding the officiating in this game. How often do we sit through games in Spain and see yellow cards being flashed for ridiculous transgressions that most probably include having bad breath? This has been a consistent theme for years now in Spanish football. Referee’s in Spain seem not to understand that football is a man’s sport, meaning that physical contact is inevitable. Referees are never an excuse in a game, but it seems that officiators in Spanish football themselves want to be the protagonists receiving the man of the match awards. Only in La Liga can players score double-digit penalties. The job of a referee must not include being a prisoner of the moment who punishes every single punishable offence. It must require looking at the game holistically and understanding how awarding transgressions affects the game as a whole.
For instance, if a player makes an aggressive challenge within the first five minutes of a game, unless it is a possible red card offence, the player should instead be given a warning and not a card, such as what we see in the Barclays Premier League, Bundesliga, and, well, every other league in the world. Referees should be able to understand that awarding a card so early will negatively affect the quality of the game as a whole, as it means a red card is likely. And if red cards will be given, the integrity of the referee will invariably be questioned after the game. Seeing a referee give out five yellow cards in the first ten minutes of a game is not strange in Spain.
A historic moment in refereeing occurred during the Spain vs Netherlands 2010 World Cup Final in South Africa. Nigel de Jong gave his best impression of a karate kick on Xabi Alonso. This was an obvious red card offence. We all know it was. However, Howard Webb used his discretion in awarding a yellow card, understanding the historic impact a red card in a World Cup Final, the greatest showpiece in all of sport, could have. Webb understood that this may not have been just any red card. This could have been the red card that ruined the 2010 World Cup Final and would be controversially contested in decades and generations to come. No one wants that kind of legacy on their resume, no matter how red card-worthy an attempt is. It would have affected the reputation of the 2010 World Cup as a whole and would’ve tainted the first World Cup on African soil. Had this same challenge occurred in Spanish football, could we expect the same kind of result? Discretion. That’s all we ask for.
Now we look forward to the future. Luis Enrique has exorcised a terrifying demon from last season, and effectively passed his first acid test of the season. Things aren’t all rosy yet. The pieces have not yet fallen together. As the season draws closer to its climax, we can expect Lucho to fully show his hand in what he truly believes is his strongest starting eleven. As this happens, naturally, the side will become more consistent. And as this side becomes more consistent, Lucho will be given the opportunity of showing us what he has learnt the past 12 months- perhaps that winning streaks in December (*cough, cough, Real Madrid) mean nothing. It is all about peaking at the right time. If we think of this season from a macro perspective, the aggressive rotations begin to make more sense. March, April, May- that’s all that matters. And as we draw nearer to this peak, we can start salivating at the grand prospect of doing the impossible yet again- another treble.