LaLiga is entering the final straight, a run that I like to call the “Luis Aragonés zone.” The late, lamented Atlético coach, a friend of unequivocal concepts, used to say to reporters: ‘Everything is decided in the last 10 games. Until then it’s all just smoke and mirrors.’ This season it appears that this viewpoint has never been more accurate as in October Atlético had been more or less proclaimed champions, with Real Madrid and Barcelona trailing in their wake and games in hand strengthening Diego Simeone’s position further still. But after Sunday’s defeat at Sevilla, Atlético are at the mercy of their pursuers with nine games remaining. Real Madrid have shaved their deficit to three points and if Barcelona beat Valladolid on Monday Ronald Koeman’s side will be just a point adrift.
Atlético started strongly but suddenly fell prone to conceding more goals than is customary (although still not many) and a crisis of results became a crisis of confidence. Simeone shook up his system by switching to three at the back, which hasn’t gone to plan, and the result has been a vertiginous loss of Atlético’s solid advantage in the table. The visitors started Sunday’s game at the Sánchez Pizjuán woefully short of confidence and ideas. Atlético later gained a foothold in the match but were always second best against a Sevilla side who have rediscovered their own verve and intensity. Jesús Navas is back at his impish best and provided the only goal of the game, getting behind the Atleti defence and crossing for his full back colleague on the other flank, Marcos Acuña, to head home.
Atlético bemoan vagaries of VAR
In truth, the decisive goal could have come earlier. Sevilla had other chances to go ahead, not least from the penalty spot. But the goal was scored after an unpunished handball by Lucas Ocampos on the other side of the pitch and Atlético complained vehemently about the failure of the match officials to review the incident on VAR as it started the move that ended with the ball in the back of the net. In fairness, it was another example of the scales of VAR justice tipping away from coherent application. In the first season after VAR was adopted in LaLiga, Alético had a goal disallowed under similar circumstances, for a foul in midfield in the build-up. Now, VAR is only applied if the infraction is “very immediate.” Such fluctuations in its application have left VAR open to complaints and frustration and left the system in a spiral of progressive discredit that was also on display during the Copa del Rey final. All Atleti took away from the Sánchez Pizjuán was a sense of being hard done by and suspensions for Luis Suárez and Marcos Llorente that will rule them out of the game against Betis.