TOP FOUR BLOW TO ‘NOT TOO ATHLETIC’ ATLETICO MADRID

Atletico Madrid drew 1-1 at Athletic Bilbao on Sunday (June 14) on their return to action after La Liga’s three-month hiatus due to the Covid-19 pandemic, missing out on the chance to capitalise on slip-ups by their rivals for Champions League places.

Iker Muniain gave Athletic the lead in an empty San Mames stadium by prodding home in the 37th minute to complete a clever move but Atletico responded two minutes later when Diego Costa slotted in following a through ball from Koke.

Diego Simeone’s Atletico side had the best chance to win the game after the interval when Athletic goalkeeper Unai Simon parried a cross from Renan Lodi into the path of Santiago Arias but the keeper recovered to block the rebound with his leg.

Simeone, who is not giving up on Champions League qualification via a top-four finish with 10 games left, said: “We were closer to victory in the second half. We couldn’t win, but now we have to keep working because each match is a final… Every game will be difficult for all the teams.”

Atletico are sixth on 46 points, level with fifth-placed Getafe, who lost at Granada on Friday, and fourth-placed Real Sociedad, who host Osasuna later on Sunday.

Athletic are 10th on 38.

“We’re not in the worst situation as this was our first game back and Athletic are a difficult side but we cannot afford to slip up again if we want to get into the Champions League,” said Atletico midfielder Koke.

“It’s strange to come to a place like San Mames which is usually spectacular and which lives for football and to have no fans but we hope we can get back to normality soon.”

This was Atletico’s first game since their momentous 3-2 win over Champions League holders Liverpool and coach Diego Simeone decided to deploy Marcos Llorente, who scored twice against the English side and is usually a holding midfielder, in attack just behind Costa.

Yannick Carrasco caused the home team problems in the first half and came within inches of scoring the first goal, flashing a shot wide of the far post after being played in by Llorente.

Carrasco fired wide again before Athletic came to life and Atletico goalkeeper Jan Oblak was forced to keep out headers from Inaki Williams and Yeray Alvarez before Muniain found a way past the Slovenian.

But Atletico have a habit of scoring soon after conceding and Costa made no mistake when played in by Koke, dedicating his goal to Atletico women’s player Virginia Torrecilla who recently had a brain tumour removed.

His gesture of support for Torrecilla did not go unnoticed.

She posted a message on Twitter with a picture of Costa’s celebration that said: “I have no words…You are amazing! Thanks from the bottom of my heart”.

-REUTERS/AFP