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A couple of hours after Diego Costa spearheaded a ruthless Chelsea to their League Cup final victory over Tottenham at Wembley, his former club Atletico Madrid fired a blank in a goalless stalemate with Sevilla. Manager Diego Simeone said he was happy with the point his team took from the Roman Sanchez Pizjuan, but it came as an indication of how targets have been lowered at Atletico who continue have their grip loosened on the La Liga title.
Simeone’s comments were significant, “We go game by game. It’s a good point because we compete against a direct rival” in referring to Sevilla who finished the game 7 points behind fourth-placed Valencia in the race for Champions League qualification. Having already lost 5 times, 1 more defeat than they managed in the whole of last season’s title-winning campaign, that is the fight Atletico are in now, contesting Sevilla, Valencia and Villarreal for third and fourth place.
It is perhaps why Simeone started without a recognised centre-forward in the Pizjuan on Sunday evening, preferring to stymie Sevilla and earn a point that marginally benefited Atletico in the hunt for the top 4. Or maybe it was symptomatic of the problems left behind by Costa’s departure, the lack of a striker who can thrive in a counter-attacking style.
Fernando Torres has been a handy addition in January but he is by no means a long-term solution, and Atletico improved when he emerged off the bench with his direct brand of running. Though it was telling that he was introduced fifteen minutes before Mario Mandzukic, the £19 million acquisition of last summer who arrived as Costa’s replacement.
It was Mandzukic’s first occasion as a sub in this campaign after previously starting the 21 games he has been available for, and in Seville it was clear that the Croat hadn’t reacted well. After coming on in the 75th minute, the striker failed to track a runner on the right-side as Sevilla launched an attack and it was an action that Simeone was sure to notice. “We need people who understand that nobody is more important than the team” said the manager in the post-match press conference, possibly aiming such criticism at his striker.
After also losing David Villa in the same summer as Costa, in doing so relinquishing the partnership that linked together for 40 goals last season, Simeone acknowledged that to replace them it would necessitate a shift in style. In came Antoine Griezmann from Real Sociedad and he was charged with linking midfield to attack and stretching the play with his electric pace.
After initially struggling to adapt to Simeone’s demands for high intensity and energy, the Frenchman is now a regular in the side, playing just behind Mandzukic. Griezmann’s absence from the bigger games earlier in the season as he struggled to adapt to Simeone’s demands should come as a warning to Mandzukic that should he continue with his passive attitude, passengers will not be tolerated at the Vincente Calderon.
It was a problem that simply never would have existed with Costa, their relentless attacking force who constantly epitomised the intense, unrelenting work-rate that Simeone demands from his team.
Now missing the athleticism and power that Costa provided in the counter-attacking approach that worked so effectively last term, Atletico have had to use a more patient approach with intricate passing and a high-defensive line to play to the strengths of the less mobile Mandzukic.
As a consequence they have conceded more, scored less and have 6 points less than they did at this stage last season, with the gaps in defence bigger and the attack far less potent than it was with Costa leading the line. The Spanish international had hit 21 La Liga goals by this stage last season compared to Mandzukic who, while he hasn’t been a complete disaster in front of goal with 20 goals in all competitions, only has 12.
One harks back to the words Simeone spoke in his first news conference as Atletico coach, and his desire to see an “aggressive team, one that is strong, committed and quick on the break.” The Argentine will be aware that hasn’t quite been the case since Costa departed and Mandzukic came in.
More worryingly for Mandzukic, Atletico have already started to be linked with other strikers, Edinson Cavani the most notable as the Uruguayan seeks to end his troubled spell with PSG. Such is Simeone’s determination to land Cavani, it has been reported in French newspaper L’Equipe that signing the 28 year old is a requisite for the manager putting pen to paper on his own new contract, for which talks have recently begun.
While Simeone has made no secret of his desire to remain at the Calderon it seems like he is set on reuniting his team with a lethal South American attacking powerhouse, hence his ultimatum for Cavani.
Atletico will now have to demand the best form from Mandzukic as they aim to fend off Valencia for third place as they aim to avoid the uncertainty of a Champions League play-off, but with Cavani’s shadow now looming and a €50 million price-tag slapped on the Uruguayan, it could be Mandzukic, with Simeone losing patience on the post-Costa experiment, being sold to make way.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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