LA LIGA | ELCHE - ATLÉTICO
Atlético win with efficiency
Diego Simeone's side move up to second in La Liga overnight after seeing off a fairly limp challenge from Elche in the Martínez Valero.
Diego Simeone is gradually piecing together the puzzle in front of him and it is starting to take on a promising look. João Miranda, a key part of Atlético's spine, is injured but his performances had been worryingly irregular. José María Giménez though has stepped into the Brazilian's boots splendidly and seems to have no intention of relinquishing his place in the starting 11. Some of us who can hardly remember now their 20s do not have the same maturity that the 19-year-old Uruguayan displays on the field. Atlético has a central defender for half a lifetime.
In view of Simeone's respect for rank, Miranda will return to the team when he is fit but his replacement instils the same sense of calm as seeing Tiago at the rudder or Arda Turan surrounded by three adversaries: a complete one. Meanwhile, without making much noise and without a rest, Mario Mandzukic is accumulating numbers worthy of Diego Costa, but with half the attendant baggage. The Croatian has now scored 12 in 19 games; elite statistics. And Atlético marches on. Elche were beaten without breaking much sweat and whatever Simeone preaches, his side are looking up the table, not down it.
After a happy preamble, with both sets of fans in party mood and the sensation that the lessons of last weekend have been learned, the game began like a gin and tonic after a long lunch, both sides drowsily awaiting a move from the other. In Atlético's case, because they know that through simple inertia a penalty-corner will arrive. In Elche's, because there was a fear of straying too far from their half, and of having their house robbed if they did. As is so often the case, Simeone won the staring contest. But on this occasion, Atlético decided to troll those who fail to appreciate their incomparable dominion of the ball.
In the 16th minute, Koke trotted over to take a corner and Elche prepared themselves for the inevitable bombardment – Diego Godín, Raúl García, Mandzukic, Tiago... it would be only fair if the rules allowed rival teams to field two extra players at times like this. Even so, when everybody's eyes were on the sky, Koke played it short. And for a while, Guilherme Siqueira, who had his best game in an Atlético shirt, and Arda were dancing on the touchline while the home defence, like Tom Hanks chasing Leonardo diCaprio in Catch me if you Can, were always a second too late. Eventually, the Turkey international, possible from on offside position, fed Giménez, who disguised himself as an elite striker and turned the defence with a neat touch before firing into the net.
As is customary, Atlético took a step backwards when they had taken the lead but Elche, with striker Jonathas absent without leave, were unable to take advantage of the few meters of space gifted to them. The home side's only chance during this spell was a skewed cross by Fajir that became a wonderful if accidental shot. Miguel Ángel Moyà, thumbing his nose at physics, flew to divert the ball for a corner and clattered into a post. Two minutes later he was again impeccable when called upon. He would be a great goalkeeper even in sandals.
And there, with almost an hour of the game left to play, ended Elche's challenge. The second half was a day out at a spa for Atlético, with Arda gaining possession as though he had a magnet in his boots and Arda distributing flashes of skill as though he was Father Christmas. Perhaps infected by the genius of the Turk, Gabi combined a very Gabi move – winning the ball in midfield – with one from Arda's back catalogue; a wonderful pass floated over Lombán into the path of Mandzukic, who shot low inside the post. The striker has now ended the debate: he is not a paintbrush and neither does he claim to be. He is a sledgehammer.
Mandzukic's strike came in the 53rd minute and both sides would happily have agreed to head to the showers early. It was surprising then that Simeone, with Juventus looming large on Tuesday, made just two changes and both of those late on, but neither was the game a particularly punishing one. Even so, Alessio Cerci remains in the dog house. He might provide the Atlético coach with a problem further down the line but for now they are disappearing like tears in the rain. Atlético are stepping on the accelerator.