Barcelona: Diego Simeone has long been considered one of the top coaches in Europe for his transformation of Atletico Madrid from the unimpressive second team of the Spanish capital into multiple-title winners and Champions League finalists.
But following a profound overhaul of his squad, this season is proving to be his biggest challenge yet.
Atletico entered this week with some of their most demanding fans criticising the team after they had just two wins in eight games across all competitions. To complicate matters, Atletico lost summer signing Joao Felix — their expensive replacement for Antoine Griezmann — to a right ankle injury last weekend in a 1-1 draw with Valencia.
Simone has responded to the signs of crisis by guiding his team to back-to-back victories.
“We have been able to deal with the absence of Joao Felix and that shows that our team is stronger,” Simeone said. “We don’t know any other way, not only when we win, than to stay united. We have a new team, young players. We know our path and we need for the club officials, the players, and all the rest of us to be looking forward.”
Atletico are being sustained by goalkeeper Jan Oblak, who made another excellent save to swat away a goal-bound header by Bilbao’s Inigo Martinez in the first half of Saturday’s 2-0 win over Athletic Bilbao in La Liga.
The Slovenia goalkeeper anchors a defensive four, which has been almost completely redone with the exits of Diego Godin, Lucas Hernandez, Filipe Luis and Juanfran Torres. In their place Felipe Monteiro, Kieran Trippier and Renan Lodi have quickly adapted to Simeone’s basic tenet of defend first, score second. Their defence has conceded a league-low five goals.
The exit of Griezmann, however, has turned out to be harder to handle.
With Deigo Costa and other forwards struggling, Atletico have scored 10 goals in 10 matches, the lowest of the top seven teams. Barcelona have 23 goals with a game in hand. Villarreal lead the league with 24 goals.
Atletico go on the road for five of their next six matches, including a trip to Juventus in Europe. They then host Barcelona in early December.
“Now we need to rest up because we have an extremely hard week ahead,” Simeone said referring to upcoming matches at Alaves, Sevilla and Leverkusen.
Alaves v Atletico, 10pm
Barcelona v Valladolid, 12.15am
Sociedad v Levante, 10pm
Valencia v Sevilla, 10pm
Athletic Bilbao v Espanyol, 11pm
Betis v Celta Vigo, midnight
Madrid v Leganes, 12.15am
Eibar v Villarreal, 10pm
Mallorca v Osasuna, 10pm
Getafe v Granada, 12.15am