European Football Preview: Atleti wobbling at the wrong time
Diego Simeone has signed a new contract but are Atletico wobbling at a key stage of the season, asks James Horncastle
"Madrid overtook them last weekend and back-to-back defeats have left a major dint in the team's title hopes."
Stagnation under Simeone?
Rayo Vallecano v Atletico Madrid
Diego Simeone signed a new contract with Atleti until 2022 on Thursday. In so doing, he continues to buck the trend among other elite coaches by committing to a club well beyond the point when the received wisdom dictates that things risk going stale.
There is a sense though that Atleti are saturated if not stagnating. Madrid overtook them last weekend and back-to-back defeats have left a major dent in the team's title hopes. For all the money invested Atleti have not evolved in terms of style as much as many anticipated. Gabi is gone, the defence, while still Spain's best, isn't as watertight as it was in the past and Diego Costa has not delivered consistently enough since his return from Chelsea a year ago.
Reflecting on the personnel Atleti brought in over the summer and the feeling that, Messi aside, this isn't a vintage Barcelona team, fans are entitled to demand a little more.
Next week's Champions League tie against Juventus looms large for two reasons. First, because it pits the two most consistent Champion League runners-up of the last five years together. Second, because the final is at the Wanda Metropolitano in May. Might Atleti's heads be turned by Wednesday's colossal game? The chances of that would be greater were they playing Rayo Vallecano on Sunday rather than on the Saturday afternoon.
Still, Atleti can expect a battle at Vallecas. Rayo are fighting for their lives and, in terms of form, have matched Atleti for points over the last six rounds of La Liga. Why not pick them up in the Double Chance market @ [2.32].
Champions League play-off in Serie A
Atalanta v AC Milan
Live on Eleven Sports 2
Arguably the game of the weekend in Serie A, Milan's short trip to Bergamo has the feel of a Champions League play-off. A point is all that separates two teams who can count of the league's most in-form strikers, Duvan Zapata and Krzysztof Piatek. But that's where the comparisons end.
Milan's top four credentials are built on the solidity that comes from Gigio Donnarumma's heroics in goal and nine clean sheets in 13 games in all competitions. Atalanta, by contrast, are the league's top scorers and come at teams from all angles. They smashed Inter 4-1 at the Atleti Azzurri d'Italia, knocked Juventus out of the cup, and came back from 3-0 down to draw 3-3 with Roma in a game that they probably should have won. You may remember Zapata skied a penalty miles over the bar.
Gian Piero Gasperini (pictured below) has made Bergamo an away day to fear for Italy's elite. Unbeaten against Milan in close to four years, Atalanta keep selling them their best players and yet still manage to finish above them on a fraction of the wage bill and transfer spend.
Will this year be the same? Atalanta have been on a tear since Josip Ilicic returned from a virus and Papu Gomez switched from out-wide to a more central position. Zapata's hot streak coincided with both of them hitting form.
Piatek and fellow January signing Lucas Paqueta have brought fresh enthusiasm and new solutions at a crucial stage of the season for Rino Gattuso's side. But Atalanta are more rounded and have been there and finished fourth before under Gasperini. Pick them @ [2.1].
Samp smell blood
Inter v Sampdoria
Live on Eleven Sports 2
On the face of it, the odds of a Sampdoria win at San Siro look appetisingly long. Going for [6.4] on the Exchange, one imagines the price reflects the consecutive defeats suffered by the Blucerchiati, which include last weekend's upset at home against second from bottom Frosinone. But Samp's performances have been better than results suggest and I'd wager that they are exactly the sort of team Inter would rather not face at the moment.
The Nerazzurri have won just one league game in 2019 and are struggling to score goals. This week the club took the drastic decision to strip Mauro Icardi of the captain's armband after his agent (who also just so happens to be his wife) went too far in criticising the striker's teammates and the coach's selection choices.
Icardi pulled out of Inter's squad for Thursday's trip to Vienna in the Europa League and it remains to be seen whether he will return for Sunday's game. Inter did not play well without him and have not put in a decent performance for a long time.
Samp, meanwhile, have had more time to prepare for this game and are not experiencing any issues whatsoever when it comes to scoring goals. Their attack ranks better than Inter's this season and they are the third highest scorers on the road in Serie A. Marco Giampaolo has led Samp to victory here before in April 2017 and will see opportunity in the tension engulfing Inter.
Take the Blucerchiati to win @ [6.4].
Back Rayo Vallecano Double Chance @ [2.32]
Back Atalanta @ [2.1]
Back Sampdoria @ [6.4]