Atletico Madrid vs. Malaga: 6 Things We Learned

Tim CollinsFeatured ColumnistMay 11, 2014

Atletico Madrid vs. Malaga: 6 Things We Learned

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    Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

    Atletico Madrid was forced to settle with a point at home to Malaga on Sunday, as Diego Simeone's side missed the opportunity to claim the league title ahead of La Liga's final day next weekend.

    After falling behind midway through the second half, an anxious home side drew level through Toby Alderweireld's header in the 74th minute.

    As momentum grew around the Vicente Calderon, Los Rojiblancos surged forward in search of the decisive goal but were denied by Bernd Schuster's gallant outfit.

    The eventual 1-1 draw was an enormous opportunity missed for Atletico, given that Real Madrid's loss to Celta Vigo and Barcelona's draw at Elche meant La Liga's leaders could have captured their first league triumph since 1995-96 with a victory.

    Across the following slides, we examine six things that we learned from Sunday's encounter.

Title Race Is Taking Its Toll on Atletico

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    At the beginning of the season, Diego Simeone's side was flourishing amid a perfect storm of defensive balance, unity and tactical acumen that relentlessly overwhelmed the club's opponents.

    However, as the season wore on, a gradual handbrake was applied to the once rampant Atletico machine, which is reflected in the side's scoring record throughout the decisive end of the season.

    Since a 4-0 hammering of Real Sociedad on February 2, Los Rojiblancos have scored only 20 goals in their last 15 league appearances.

    Most noticeably, the men from the capital have moved toward a rather attritional style, as the lack of superstar match-winners has tempered their attacking threat in this grueling marathon.

    Of course, Diego Costa's forced omission from Sunday's clash with Malaga was extremely damaging for the home side. But, it has been clear for a number of weeks that an absence of individual brilliance has seen Simeone's team being unable to blow games apart against teams that have developed strategies to cope with the robust Atletico outfit.

Thibaut Courtois Will Be a Huge Loss If He Departs Madrid

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    Thibaut Courtois provided another example of his exceptional quality against Malaga on Sunday, producing a fine save when rushing off his line to deny Roque Santa Cruz not long after the halftime interval.

    With his team caught out of shape on the counterattack, the Belgian raced from his position in the goal mouth to complete a critically important rescuing act for the home side.

    While it must be acknowledged that the keeper was partly at fault for the visitors' opening goal, the 22-year-old had been forced to make a difficult split-second decision by Toby Alderweireld's dreadfully botched clearance. 

    Following a long list of impressive performances, many of which have occurred under the pressure of Champions League football, it seems almost certain that Courtois will be departing the Vicente Calderon at season's end.

    Chelsea, of course, will have the first say in the keeper's whereabouts, given that he's currently on loan at Atletico from Stamford Bridge.

    After helping to propel Simeone's team to the summit of La Liga, the emerging star's possible departure would be a crippling blow for Atletico Madrid.

Lack of Midfield Control Has Cost Atletico in Consecutive Weeks

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    For a side sitting at the top of La Liga, Atletico Madrid's possession stats are rather bewildering.

    Across the duration of the domestic campaign, Diego Simeone's outfit has averaged just 47.6 percent of possession (13th in the league), according to WhoScored.com.

    While that hasn't been an issue for much of the season, the lack of total midfield control has cost Atletico in consecutive matches against Levante and Malaga.

    In both games, the men from the capital edged the possession stats but didn't garner a definitive sense of authority in the middle of the pitch. 

    In the absence of Diego Costa and amid the team's declining attacking threat, Atletico hasn't been able to maintain pressure on their opponents for lengthy periods, negating their ability to create chance after chance.

    Of course, that lack of possession and commanding midfield control wasn't an issue earlier in the season when the side's attacking ensemble was in full flow. But as things have slowed on the offensive side, an inability to run opponents into the ground has cost Atletico over the last two weekends.

David Villa's World Cup Place Is in Jeopardy

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    David Villa is among the most influential players in the history of Spanish football, given his status as the nation's all-time leading scorer in international competition.

    However, the striker's position for the upcoming World Cup in Brazil is in jeopardy following a season that could be described as indifferent.

    Against Malaga on Sunday, he missed a golden opportunity to put his side in front in the first half, smashing a shot against the crossbar after Raul Garcia had put him through on goal.

    With another yard of pace, the former Barcelona forward would have likely enjoyed an easier chance. Instead, Wilfredo Caballero was able to rush off his line to make Villa's attempt more difficult.

    That moment was the latest indication that Villa's age (32) and injury history have taken a toll on the striker's athleticism, which may put the Atletico forward behind the likes of Diego Costa and Alvaro Negredo in Vicente del Bosque's World Cup plans.

    Additionally, Villa's scoring record is only moderate this season. He has scored 13 times in 35 appearances, according to WhoScored.com, after switching to the Vicente Calderon in search for more playing time than was available in his final months at Barcelona.

Attritional Finish to Season Is a Concern Ahead of UCL Final

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    Atletico's storming of the Champions League has been quite remarkable this season, but it's undeniable that the team's grinding finish to the ongoing campaign is a concern ahead of the Champions League final matchup against Real Madrid.

    Despite falling out of the league title race on Sunday with a loss to Celta Vigo, Carlo Ancelotti's side has been in blistering form in the continental competition this season. The attacking trio of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale has torn apart opposing sides.

    Los Rojiblancos' road to the final has been considerably less spectacular, albeit effective. 

    However, it feels as though the arduous slog that Atletico's relatively small squad has endured this term has left the team with very little in the tank. The flow and pace that the team once attacked with have been in decline for a number of weeks. The side's goal tally is beginning to dry up.

    Ahead of a momentous occasion against their Madrid rivals, the attritional feeling that has sunk its teeth into the Vicente Calderon in recent times is a genuine cause for concern.

Title Advantage Is Still with Atletico

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    Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

    As the title race extends to La Liga's final day, Atletico still retain the advantage heading into the epic-looking clash with Barcelona at the Camp Nou next weekend.

    Three points ahead of the Catalan giants, Los Colchoneros need only a draw in Barcelona to secure their first league title since 1995-96.

    While emerging with a point from the imposing home of Barcelona is a difficult task, Diego Simeone's side is unbeaten in five meetings with La Blaugrana this season and should feel confident in its ability to quell Tata Martino's men.

    Despite Barcelona's plethora of attacking talent, Atletico's unyielding defence has limited the Catalans to just two goals in their encounters in 2013-14.

    A typically vigorous performance will again be required from Los Rojiblancos, but one feels that the title edge is still tipped toward the Spanish capital.