Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone said a “step up in intensity” and then a “golazo” from forward Angel Correa led to his side’s hard-fought 1-0 victory over Valencia on Sunday evening and kept their firm grip on second place in the La Liga standings.
A tight and tense first 45 minutes at a rain-swept Wanda Metropolitan saw Atletico come closest when Diego Costa’s powerful header was superbly stopped by Valencia goalkeeper Neto.
The deadlock was then broken in spectacular fashion when Angel Correa hammered a rising shot to the top corner just before the hour mark, and Atletico held on for the three points against a direct top-four rival despite losing both starting centre-halves, Stefan Savic and Diego Godin, to injury.
The rojiblanco coach told Movistar show Partidazo afterwards that his team had deserved their victory against a side among the very best in La Liga.
“We were playing against one of the best teams in the Spanish league,” Simeone said. “And we were superior, we just lacked a bit more aggressive intent in the first half. In the second half we took a step up in intensity, that brought the goal from Correa, which was a golazo.”
Simeone had named a strikingly attacking starting XI, with Correa and Yannick Carrasco on the wings, and Koke and Saul Niguez as his midfield two.
“We believed that for this game we could play like this,” he said. “We thought Koke and Saul could help with bringing the ball into attack. Without so many chances in the first half, we had good circulation of the ball. That benefited us in the second half.”
Simeone said the early expectation was that neither Savic nor Godin, who appeared to lose a tooth after being accidentally punched in the head by Los Che keeper at a corner, had suffered serious injuries.
“The doctors will know better,” he said. “It is not easy in a game like this, to be forced to make two substitutions like this. But the response of those who came in [Juanfran and Gimenez], and Gabi, was very good.”
The only team in La Liga’s top six to win this weekend, Atletico sit a full nine points behind runaway leaders Barcelona, but are now nine points ahead of third-placed Valencia, and 10 clear of Real Madrid in fourth [although Los Blancos have a game in hand].
Asked if his side were now close to clinching Champions League football for next season, Simeone responded with typical caution.
“We have just one idea, to keep improving,” he said. “We have room for improvement still, and keep going game by game.”
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan