Guillem Balague previews Atletico Madrid v Arsenal
- Credit: Archant
Spanish football expert Guillem Balague spoke exclusively to Layth Yousif about Arsenal’s crucial Europa League semi-final second leg match against Atletico Madrid on Thursday. Read on for what he had to say.
Arsenal were held 1-1 by Atletico Madrid in the first leg of the last four match on a night of drama at the Emirates six days ago.
A second half header by Alexandre Lacazette put the Gunners ahead before Antoine Griezman equalised with eight minutes remaining.
The Emirates witnessed the most incident-packed and atmospheric opening 15 minutes in its all too-often staid history
Atleti boss Diego Simeone let his frustration get the better of him after a Hector Bellerin foul on Lucas Henandez, leaving the French referee Clement Turpin no choice but to banish him to the stands.
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The reaction came moments after the Croat international Sime Vrsaljko, signed from Serie A minnows Sassuolo, tripped Jack Wilshere after only 120 seconds to earn a yellow card.
The 34-capped Croatian full-back failed to heed his lesson as eight minutes later he lifted his foot off the ground and made contact with Lacazette’s foot and was promptly sent off.
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The Emirates then witnessed a rearguard action from Spain’s second place team which ultimately clinched a draw in Arsene Wenger’s last-ever European match as Gunners boss.
Sky Sports La Liga expert Guillem Balague analysed the match saying: “From what I saw at the Emirates in the first leg of the Europa League semi-final between Arsenal and Atletico Madrid was a reflection on this season.
“Arseanl enjoy playing when they have the football but when they don’t have possession they struggle.
“Even though they weren’t attacked a lot during the match, and Arsenal defended with the ball, you still have to be strong in those moments where things could happen – and it is in those instances you always see a weak point.
“The fact Arsenal haven’t won away in 2018 would suggest that this is a team that needs more demands [placed on them].
“To be stronger mentally, when things go wrong and to be more aggressive with the ball and without it.
“The quality is there. They just need someone to push them on.”
Atleti forward Griezmann is the Los Rojiblancos – the Red-and-Whites – most important striker at the moment, even if he has yet to land a major trophy in his career. The 27-year-old Frenchman was part of the Real Sociedad side that won promotion to La Liga eight years ago, while Atletico won the Spanish Super Cup against Real Madrid after he joined in 2014, but crushing defeats in the 2016 Champions League final and European Championship final saw him fail to pick up silverware.
With Atleti failing to pick up a trophy since that Super Cup win four years ago it seems Griezmann’s hunt for medals has seen him courted by Barcelona, who are appear confident of securing his transfer by paying the £87 million buyout clause this summer, even if Simeone is insisting he can persuade him to stay.
Balague said: “A team that while still missing the likes of Diego Costa – he hasn’t scored in two months and he’s had at least three injuries since he arrived meaning we haven’t seen the best of Costa – but when he plays, and he should be ready as he played at the weekend in the 1-0 victory at Alaves – Griezmann finds new spaces to do what he does. Which is to take the team to the next level.
“In a sense Costa’s addition has been more important to Griezmann than to Costa. Griezmann despite not a great start he now reached the levels we expected him to.”
Atleti boss Simeone praised his men after their defensive display against Arsenal, who could and should have clinched the match with further goals against the visitors’ ten men.
After their goalless draw with Real Betis before they travelled to London, Atleti have now kept an impressive 11 consecutive clean sheets at home, with Girona striker Portu the last visiting player to score at their new 67,000 capacity Estadio Wanda Metropolitano more than three months ago.
That run includes victories in previous Europa League knockout ties against FC Copenhagen (1-0), Lokomotiv Moscow (3-0) and Sporting Lisbon (2-0).
The highly-respected Balague added: “This is against a team that has turned the screw. This is a team that knows how to suffer.
“Juanfran missing is a big absence because he’s actually the best right back they’ve got as he adds good defensive work and depth but in that position the likes of [Ghana international] Thomas have played and could do it again.
Thomas is one of those players who have made the jump in terms of quality this season.”
Balague also praised goalkeeper Jan Oblak who performed extremely well in North London as he has all season as his Atleti side have only conceded a miserly 18 goals, three fewer than champions Barcelona and 19 fewer than city rivals Real Madrid in third place.
Atletico’s challenge is based on a watertight defence – as it has been all through the Simeone era since he was appointed in 2011, even if Oblak is expected to leave the club in the summer, possibly to PSG.
Balague said: “Oblak along with Ter Stegen and De Gea is the one of the three best goalkeepers in the world.
“So the odds are stacked in favour of Atletico Madrid.
“I know Arsenal have been away in Milan and did well but Atletico are a different proposition. Atletico are favourites.
“I know in European competitions it can go either way - be it in terms of a goal scored or a goal conceded can change the whole tie, or a referees decision but on paper Atletico Madrid are favourite.”