Atletico Madrid once again showed they will take some stopping in LaLiga's title race as they claimed a commendable 2-0 win at high-flying Real Sociedad to go three points clear at the summit despite being without the injured Joao Felix.
Diego Simeone's side were unable to dominate a Real Sociedad team full of attacking talent, but Atletico's defence was as reliable as ever and even set them on their way with the first goal through centre-back Mario Hermoso.
The defender had arguably gone closer than anyone else to the opening goal in a first half that was intriguing, if not exhilarating.
But in the 49th minute, Atletico – so often a threat at set-pieces once upon a time – edged in front thanks to Hermoso's well-timed header at a free-kick.
Marcos Llorente doubled the lead towards the end, meaning early-season leaders La Real are now in danger of slipping out of the top four after their winless LaLiga run was extended to six games.
2018 - Mario Hermoso has been the first Atlético's defender to score from free kick piece in #LaLiga since november 2018 when Diego Godín scored at the extra-time vs Athletic at Wanda Metropolitano. Return#RealSociedadAtleti #AtleticodeMadrid @atletienglish pic.twitter.com/yriVnLDkoA— OptaJose (@OptaJose) December 22, 2020
A well contested first half brought plenty of neat football but few clear-cut chances, with the two defences extremely well organised.
The hosts looked as though they had carved Atletico open in the 20th minute, with David Silva going on a mazy run up the right flank, but his cutback was crucially intercepted before Willian Jose could pounce.
Soon after at the other end, Hermoso had a header from a corner blocked by Andoni Gorosabel right in front of goal – though it may have been going just off target.
That was a warning La Real failed to heed as Hermoso broke the stalemate just after the restart, heading emphatically past Alex Remiro from Yannick Carrasco's free-kick delivery.
La Real's response was underwhelming, Atletico's backline remaining unruffled, and the visitors sealed the points 16 minutes from time.
Carrasco nudged Luis Suarez's pass on to Llorente, and the midfielder's left-footed strike from the edge of the box left Remiro helpless.
What does it mean? A statement victory for Simeone
Even with La Real's recent struggles, this was always like to be a tight affair and potential banana skin for Atletico – the Basque side's array of attacking talent is impressive.
But Atletico out-scrapped them and their more direct approach bore fruit, as La Real only mustered six shots and just one was on target. Their more clinical visitors had eight, with three on target.
Granted, Atletico’s critics will still point to the chastening Madrid derby defeat as a cause for concern, but against the rest they have been largely flawless. They will not have many potentially trickier trips than this and will still have two games in hand on Zinedine Zidane's men after they face Granada on Wednesday.
Carrasco provides creativity in the absence of Joao Felix
Losing Joao Felix was a big blow given his importance to Atletico this season, but credit to Carrasco – the Belgian was a force on the left flank. He drove his team forward with real purpose and saw more of the ball more than any of this team-mates (66 touches). His 14 contested duels was second only Koke and Mikel Merino (15 each), though his four key passes was a match high and he set up both goals. Near perfect from the winger.
Portu fails to impose himself
In an otherwise impressive season, this was a day to forget for Portu. He tried to operate in the channel between Carrasco and Hermoso, but got little change from the centre-back. All he had to show for his efforts was a single shot, with no key passes, before he was withdrawn in the 74th minute. He had just 16 touches – the fewest of any of the players who started the game.
Key Opta facts
- Diego Simeone has reached his 300th victory with Atletico Madrid in all competitions, a figure that had only previously been reached by Luis Aragones (308).
- Atletico have conceded just five goals after their first 13 LaLiga games. Only in 1995-96 season, when they won the title, have they conceded fewer at this stage of the competition (four).
- Real Sociedad have not won in their last six LaLiga matches (D3 L3), the worst streak of the current season and the worst under coach Imanol Alguacil.
- Yannick Carrasco has been involved in four goals (one goal, three assists) in his last four games for Atletico in all competitions.
- Atletico have scored 73 per cent of their LaLiga goals this season in the second half (19 out of 25) of games. Only Athletic Bilbao can beat this (76 per cent).
Atletico return to action after Christmas on December 30 as they host nearby Getafe at the Wanda Metropolitano. La Real have an extra day to prepare for their Basque derby away to Athletic Bilbao on New Year's Eve.