Athletic Bilbao and Atletico Madrid returned to action with a 1-1 draw at San Mames Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
Iker Muniain opened the scoring with a deft flick from a Yuri cross after 37 minutes, but Atletico hit break almost immediately, with Diego Costa finishing a Koke through-ball after Saul Niguez had intercepted an Athletic clearance.
Goalkeepers Unai Simon and Jan Oblak both had to pull off top-class saves throughout the course of the match, but what did we learn from the action in the Basque region?
1. Costa rediscovers golden touch
He still battles like a lion, contests every refereeing decision like his entire career depends on it and provides a lot of quality to Atletico’s build-up, but it’s safe to say Costa’s second spell with the club after returning from Chelsea in 2017 hasn’t been anywhere near as prolific as his first.
Diego Costa’s last three LaLiga seasons with Atletico Madrid during his second stint with the club:
His first LaLiga goal since October 2019. pic.twitter.com/oEbmJRSpJT
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) June 14, 2020
Ahead of Sunday’s match in Bilbao, the 31-year-old had managed just seven goals in 44 La Liga appearances across the past two-and-a-half seasons and hadn’t netted in the league since October last year.
But you can’t keep a good striker down forever. In the 39th minute, mere moments after his side had gone behind, Costa received a clever through-ball in the box from Koke after Saul had intercepted a clearance. The former Chelsea striker needed no second invitation to slide the ball beyond Unai Simon to give Simeone’s men an immediate reply.
Diego Costa celebrated his goal by holding up the shirt of Atletico women’s player Virginia Torrecilla, who had a brain tumour removed in May ? pic.twitter.com/60vma8oVO0
— B/R Football (@brfootball) June 14, 2020
Given that Atletico had scored the sixth-lowest number of goals (31) in La Liga prior to Sunday’s match, an in-form Costa post-lockdown could prove vital to their hopes of securing Champions League football for next season.
2. Inaki Williams continues remarkable appearance streak
Given their “Cantera” policy of only recruiting players of Basque origin, it’s a given that Athletic Club produce a remarkably high number of talents from their youth academy.
Inaki Williams is just another in a long list of names to emerge at the Basque club and on Sunday, he lined up once again in Bilbao’s forward line for the 147th consecutive La Liga game. One-hundred-and-forty-seven games, no injuries, no suspensions. That’s an incredible tally — a club record — neatly started with a home match against Atletico Madrid back in April 2017.
Iñaki Williams has now played in 147 consecutive LaLiga games without missing a single one for Athletic Club.
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— Squawka Football (@Squawka) June 14, 2020
Manchester United were just one of the clubs linked with Williams last year, while Barcelona were rumoured to be looking at him as a solution to their recent striker shortage, However, if Williams’ words — and a new nine-year contract — are anything to go by, he won’t be breaking this appearance streak anytime soon.
“Barca is Barca, they have Messi, the best player in the world, but Athletic is above everything for me,” he said in February.
3. Saul the midfield engine
As usual, Atletico were happy to surrender most of the possession to Athletic Club on Sunday and, as usual, that meant a disciplined, energetic and tenacious defensive effort was required to keep the opposition at bay. Leading that charge was Spanish midfielder Saul Niguez.
Saul has been fantastic once again this season, becoming a perfect representation of everything Atletico Madrid stand for under Simeone and on Sunday, he was again at his impressive best.
Saúl Ñíguez in the first half against Athletic Club:
During the first half, he contested 13 duels, 11 aerial duels, made six recoveries and completed three interceptions — more than any other player on the pitch. In fact, it was his interception of a Yeray Alvarez clearance which led to Atletico’s equaliser, while his presence left of centre allowed Yannick Carrasco and Renan Lodi to push forward far more aggressively to cause Bilbao problems down that flank.
He didn’t let up after the break, either, finishing the match having gained possession 10 times for his side — more than any other Atletico player.
Saul’s defensive action area map vs Athletic Club
Alongside Koke, Thomas Partey and Diego Llorente, Saul obviously forms just one part of a top-class Atletico Madrid midfield. However, given his gargantuan efforts, you often get the feeling the whole thing would just come apart if it wasn’t for him.
4. Copa del Rey remains Athletic Club’s best route into Europe
Defeat to Atletico Madrid on Sunday would have been disastrous to Athletic Club’s league position — Simeone’s side are eight points clear of the Basque side and ahead of kick-off, occupying sixth-place — the final Europa League spot.
Reaching the Europa League through their La Liga form now seems beyond Bilbao — even Valencia in seventh are six points clear and there’s the small matter of Villarreal and Granada occupying eighth and ninth, too.
But there is, of course, the small matter of a Basque derby with Real Sociedad to come in the Copa del Rey final. Victory there will offer Bilbao a backdoor into the Europa League and given their rich history in that competition, qualification could open up all sorts of possibilities for next season.
5. Goalkeepers to the rescue
To say this game was a thriller would be overstating it. Sure, it was entertaining and tactically fascinating, but goalmouth action was relatively sparse throughout the 90 minutes. That said, it still required some moments of brilliance from both goalkeepers to ensure the sides shared the spoils.
In the first half, Jan Oblak made two big saves while the score was still 0-0. First, he was able to get in the way of a Williams header, gratefully collecting it into his chest at the second attempt. Then, just a few minutes later, he leapt across brilliantly to save a Yeray Alvarez header after Muniain had delivered a wicked cross to the heart of the Atletico defence. A top-class moment from arguably the world’s greatest goalkeeper.
In the second half, it was Unai Simon’s chance to show his shot-stopping quality. Initially, he struggled to deal with a Lodi delivery across his box — as proactive as he was in getting a hand to it, he diverted it right into the path of the onrushing Santiago Arias at the far post. Arias fired a wicked shot toward goal which looked destined to ripple the back of the net, only for Simon to get across and block the effort at close range. Had Lodi scored, that would surely have been curtains for Bilbao in this one.