Saul strike sets Simeone’s Atletico up for strong European strive
Lee Gormley | April 28, 2016
Atletico aiming for European success
After their heartbreak of losing the 2014 Champions League final to bitter city rivals Real Madrid, Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid are on course towards banishing that agonising defeat this year after overcoming Bayern Munich on home soil.
At the Vicente Calderon, a sublime solo strike from Spanish midfielder Saul Niguez after just 10 minutes helped Atleti on their way to a semi-final first leg victory over Pep Guardiola’s German champions-elect, boosting their chances of finally clinching European success.
Following Saul’s early goal in the Spanish capital, Atleti defiantly defended their narrow lead to make sure they head into the second leg in Germany with an advantage, with Simeone’s side now hoping they can put this tie to bed and secure a second final spot in three seasons.
The battle for La Liga supremacy is still going on in the latter stages of this thrilling Spanish campaign too, after reigning champions Barcelona’s recent collapse, so Simeone will be targeting another league triumph but his gallant side are 12/5 with Coral to lift a truly desired Champions League crown on May 28th.
Simeone seeks crowning European glory
Former Argentina international Simeone, who earned over 100 caps for his country, is the man credited for turning Atletico into a well-rounded outfit capable of challenging on all fronts, and the 45-year-old will have huge faith in his side claiming European glory this season.
The passionate South American spent two spells at Atleti as a player, being part of the 1995/96 team that rallied to a famous La Liga and Copa del Rey double, and he has transferred his well-regarded leadership attributes and tactical awareness from his playing days into his impressive recent managerial career.
Atletico’s passionate boss was recently handed a three-match league ban for seemingly instructing a ball boy to throw a ball on to the pitch to disrupt a Malaga attack during a 1-0 domestic win, though his presence in Champions League encounters isn’t affected.
The former Inter Milan and Lazio defensive midfielder has undoubtedly become one of the most tactically astute managers in European football, and his efforts in the Champions League this term could see him complete an incredible coaching record.
As well as La Liga and Copa del Rey success as a player, Simeone has won both honours as Atleti boss too, adding to his Europa League, Supercopa Espana and UEFA Super Cup victories, and a Champions League triumph in 2016 would see him clinch the top club reward and complete the lot.
Tie still in balance says Simeone
Despite entering the Allianz Arena for the second leg with a slender lead after Saul’s sensational opener, Simeone claimed the tie is still in the balance, possibly playing mind games with rival coach Guardiola ahead of their second leg tussle, which Atletico are 9/2 to win.
“It’s an open tie,” said Simeone. “Playing in Munich means they’ll have their fans behind them and home advantage. But we have a chance to get an away goal. It’ll be a close game like today’s and we’ll see who makes the most of their chances.
“We got in front, we felt comfortable. In the second half they [Bayern] were better, they had lots of possession and they got in behind us. We defended well but it was a different game in the second half.”
Bayern are still the 12/5 second-favourites to reign supreme for the first time under Guardiola, a feat the Spaniard will be desperate to achieve before arriving on the blue half of Manchester this summer, but he will first have to get the better of Atleti’s cunning coach on home turf.
Spain to call Saul?
Atletico head to Munich with a 1-0 lead intact thanks to 21-year-old midfielder Saul, with the former Real Madrid academy player having danced between Xabi Alonso and Juan Bernat before entering the area and vitally firing past Manuel Neuer, for what he admitted was his best-ever career goal.
“It was the most important goal of my career, and maybe the most beautiful too,” said Spain Under-21 international Saul.
“I was dribbling with the ball, I saw that I’d got by two opponents and when I got into the area I thought about getting it onto my stronger foot. When it was on my left, I placed it.”
Having featured for his country since the Under-16s, Saul’s latest European exploits may not just have edged Atleti towards a Champions League final place, but could also have elevated himself into contention for Euro 2016 this upcoming summer.
Euros spot on the horizon?
The Elche-born youngster has been one of many shining lights for Simeone’s industrious side during another heroic campaign, and a successive dazzling display in Germany may force himself into Vicente del Bosque’s thinking for France, where Spain are 11/2 to retain their crown.
Saul is yet to earn a senior La Roja cap so far in his short but sweet career, but was part of the squads that faced Costa Rica in a friendly and a Euro 2016 qualifier against Belarus. The talented midfield ace has netted nine times in over 40 season outings this term and his club boss was full of praise for his most recent contributions.
“When the ball went in we were happy,” added Simeone. “Saul is in a brilliant moment and it fills you with joy to see everything that is happening to him. He deserves it for the work he does, the persistence, the motivation, for believing in himself.”
Simeone may see a lot of himself in his little midfield maestro, with Saul possessing similar central qualities to the Argentine, being a gritty competitor with a great tactical understanding and an eye for goal, as proved in the semi-final first leg.
Atletico’s coach possesses a close relationship with all his players and is able to get the best out of them, proven by Saul and others such as revived frontman Fernando Torres, who agonisingly hit the post against Bayern, and attack-minded playmaker Koke, with the latter being another pivotal cog to the recent winning machine.
It remains unclear whether Simeone would be able to emulate his achievements with Atletico at a different club which he doesn’t hold such close connections to but, if he can maintain this gallant European run, the Argentine tactician may find himself at the centre of a managerial bidding war this coming summer.