Athletic Bilbao 1-1 Atletico Madrid: Diego Costa on target to salvage a point for visitors.
Atletico Madrid were forced to settle for a share of the spoils in their first LaLiga game back after a three-month wait against Athletic Bilbao on Sunday.
Diego Simeone’s men returned to league action after 95 days away in the deafening silence of an empty stadium, and were left thankful for Diego Costa after the frontman salvaged a frustrating point for the visitors.
The striker’s cool finish into the far corner provided the crucial moment of ruthlessness for the visitors, but Atletico will surely be left rueing missed chances after falling further behind in the race to finish in the top four spots.
Atletico’s Champions League triumph against Liverpool was their final game before the coronavirus pandemic brought a halt to football around the world. But the unlikely success at Anfield may perhaps have provided a distraction from the club’s domestic woes.
Simeone’s men surprisingly find themselves adrift of the top four spots, and are faced with a crucial final 10 games of the campaign in their attempts to seal European qualification.
The serial European contenders remain nine points behind arch rivals Real Madrid before their meeting with Eibar on Sunday evening, and this stalemate may prove damaging.
It has been their dismal away form that has forced the giants to fight tooth and nail to compete in Europe’s elite knockout tournament once again. A haul of 16 points from an available 39 was the main reason behind Simeone’s frustrations ahead of the game.
But Atletico emerged from the starting blocks on the front foot, desperate to banish those travelling demons.
Jose Gimenez rose highest to nod wide from a corner on six minutes, and Yannick Carrasco squandered a fine opening just minutes later.
The Belgian attacker, on loan from Dalian Professional, partnered Diego Costa up front – with Alvaro Morata benched.
Simeone’s admission that both star frontmen are incapable of being fielded together rung true, and Carrasco’s burst through on goal almost ensured the coach’s decision paid dividends.
Marcos Llorente, the hero at Anfield, threaded through the incisive ball for Carrasco, but the resultant strike skidded wide of the approaching Unai Simon and the far post. Carrasco proved a danger once again soon after, but his twists and jinks inside the box were halted by a well-timed challenge.
The hosts sat in mid-table before the clash and had threatened to further derail Atletico’s hopes of salvaging their season. Ander Capa’s first-time cross from the right flank allowed Inaki Williams to glance a header towards goal, although Jan Oblak was able to field comfortably.
Atletico’s stopper saved again from Berchiche’s powerful header from the far post, but even his heroics weren’t enough to prevent Iker Muniain from breaking the deadlock. A wicked cross from the left back whistled through to the feet of the Bilbao captain, who used the outside of his right boot to slice wonderfully beyond Oblak with the aid of a slight deflection.
But the hosts’ celebrations were promptly cut short. Costa restored parity for the Champions League chasers, latching onto Koke’s prod forward and burying into the far corner with aplomb.
The clash turned into an intriguing sparring contest after the half-time break, with neither set of attackers able to carve out a clear cut opening. Atletico, as they have so often done under Simeone, dropped into a compact shape and battled at every turn before attempting to spring forward on the counter.
Despite the efforts of both teams, the 63rd minute unsurprisingly brought with it a flood of substitutions. The notable changes included a complete reshuffle of Atletico’s front two, with Morata and Thomas Lemar thrown into the fray in place of scorer Costa and Carrasco.
The raft of alterations failed to alter the drifting nature of the second half until its dying stages. Lemar smacked a free-kick into the Bilbao wall from 25 yards out, and it appeared as though the clash would peter out with a point shared apiece.
But it took a sensational stop from Simon that prevented Atletico from stealing the victory. A low delivery across the face of goal was palmed out towards substitute Santiago Arias by the Bilbao stopper, who recovered spectacularly to scramble across his line and push out the rebound.
Along the touchline, Simeone leapt up and berated the air. His side were consigned to yet more frustration at the full-time whistle.