Koke runs the show as Simeone copes without Suarez to finally beat Barcelona

By Sports Desk November 21, 2020

In an alternate universe unaffected by coronavirus, Atletico Madrid's hosting of Barcelona on Saturday would have been all about Luis Suarez – his first match against his former club and Lionel Messi, hoping to create further distance between the two sides in the table.

But with the Uruguayan's positive test for COVID-19 ruling him out of an early reunion, all eyes were to be on Joao Felix, the undisputed star of this Atletico team that once again appears capable of a title challenge.

Seemingly now accustomed to the pressure that accompanied his big-money move from Benfica, and excelling in a slightly altered role to that he often occupied last term, Joao Felix had been identified as the key man for Atletico heading into the fixture.

If Atletico were to walk away with a potentially vital win, Joao Felix would surely be at the fore.

But while the Portugal star was his usual tidy self in the slender 1-0 victory, it was someone a little less flashy, perhaps even usually unheralded, who gave Atletico their direction and purpose on an eerie evening at the Wanda Metropolitano.

Koke's role was arguably going to be more important than ever – Atletico were unable to call upon either Lucas Torreira or Hector Herrera, meaning that whatever central pairing the captain was going to be a part of was going to be lacking a little steel.

But the Spain international, whose recent form earned him a recall after a lengthy Roja absence, found the space he needed to orchestrate, while he did some of the dirty work as well.

In the first half, Atletico played the much more entertaining football, working it nicely between themselves in triangles around the Barca midfield – Koke was central to many of their finest moves, his link-up play with Joao Felix and Angel Correa in the final third routinely easy on the eye.

Koke appears to have rediscovered his best form again this term and his influence on Atleti was clear throughout here.

His 72 attempted passes were 14 more than anyone else in an Atletico jersey, while he completed 93 per cent of them.

Furthermore, his accuracy actually increased slightly when in the opposing half, where 45 of them were plotted.

There was substance to his distribution as well.

He laid on two key passes, bettered by only Correa (three) in the Atletico side, yet the creative burden would usually be expected to be on the likes of Joao Felix, Marcos Llorente, Yannick Carrasco and Saul Niguez ahead of him.

Koke's 88 touches were unrivalled by anyone else in Rojiblanco, evidence that so much went through him, while off the ball he contributed with a team-high two interceptions, one tackle, one clearance and six recoveries – Carrasco (seven), the scorer of the decisive goal, was the only Atletico player to gain possession more often.

In recent seasons, although he remained prominent in a general sense for Atletico, the wider football community's perception of Koke had suffered – he was even subjected to jeers from home fans a little over a year ago.

At that point, his career appeared to have stalled badly at Atletico. His performances were becoming increasingly ineffective and it was beginning to rub off on supporters.

Simeone remained a believer, putting such actions down to the reactionary nature of football fandom – after all, only six midfielders have had more touches and attempted passes than Koke in LaLiga this term.

This resurgence is coinciding with Atletico undergoing their biggest shift in many years, both in terms of their less pragmatic style of play and, now, key results as well.

Prior to Saturday, Atletico had failed to win their previous 20 LaLiga games against Barca, while Simeone had not ever beaten them in the league – that equates to 17 matches.

But with captain Koke plotting their route through such uncharted waters, leading with rediscovered vigour and panache, it seems unlikely that even a landmark win over Barca will be the high point of 2020-21 for a re-energised Atletico.

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