Atletico Madrid ended a three-game winless run in all competitions with a 3-0 victory over Real Betis at a rain-soaked Wanda Metropolitano.

Yannick Carrasco's superb first-half finish and an own goal from German Pezzella in the second put the champions in control against Manuel Pellegrini's side.

Joao Felix came off the bench to drill home a third as Atleti delivered their best league performance since the 2-0 win over Barcelona at the start of the month.

Betis rarely offered a threat to Jan Oblak's goal as they endured an eighth defeat in nine away league games against Atletico, a run in which they have failed to score in any of the past six games.

William Carvalho had a shot parried by Oblak in the first minute of a match that started in frenetic fashion, Betis looking to capitalise on a defence that had conceded at least twice in each of Atleti's previous three games.

Jose Gimenez and Antoine Griezmann each came close before Carrasco broke the deadlock in stunning style, taking Angel Correa's pass, turning away from Martin Montoya and blasting high past Claudio Bravo at his near post.

Luis Suarez headed wide when unmarked and Mario Hermoso saw the flag rule out a second when he nodded in Antoine Griezmann's delivery, as Atletico continued to push forward.

A fine passing move saw Griezmann pick out Suarez, but Bravo thwarted the striker again. However, from the resulting Griezmann corner, Pezzella mistimed his header and nodded the ball firmly into his own net.

Substitute Felix completed the scoring with a well-taken left-footed finish driven beneath Bravo, a VAR check showing he had timed his run to meet Carrasco's throughball perfectly.


What does it mean? Champions up into fourth

Atleti's win lifted them above Betis in the table and to within two points of leaders Real Madrid, second-placed Sevilla and Real Sociedad in third. Sociedad had a game to come later on Sunday, however.

It will also give them some confidence ahead of a Champions League visit to Liverpool in the coming week, particularly after the Reds surrendered a two-goal lead to draw with Brighton and Hove Albion on Saturday.

Bravo keeps scores respectable

Atleti should really have been out of sight before Pezzella's unfortunate own goal, with Bravo making seven saves as Suarez in particular was profligate with his chances.

The former Barcelona keeper has never before made as many saves in a single LaLiga match.

Suarez needs sharpness

Suarez missed two big chances and had the highest expected goals figure (0.48) of any of Atletico's attacking players during his 71 minutes on the pitch.

The Uruguay striker will need to be more ruthless against his old club if Atletico are to leave Merseyside with a positive result.

What's next?

Atleti face Liverpool at Anfield on Wednesday before heading to Valencia on November 7 for their final game before the next international break.

When Joao Felix signed for Atletico Madrid in 2019, it's fair to say there were plenty who doubted it would be a happy marriage.

Atletico shelled out €126million on the Portuguese talent who had taken the Primeira Liga by storm in his first season, scoring 15 times despite not even being in the Benfica first team when the campaign had begun.

But how was this technical virtuoso going to fit into an Atletico side characterised by its work rate? How would he adapt to the demanding principles implemented by Diego Simeone?

Maverick talents known more for their technical attributes than anything else had often been seen as Simeone's blind spot, hence some trepidation about whether he was the right man to nurture Joao Felix.

The Portugal international's Atletico career has been a slow-burner, but once again there are signs he is beginning to find himself.

Stuck in limbo

Joao Felix had to miss the start of this season through injury, which was obviously not ideal, particularly given how 2020-21 ultimately turned out for him after a promising start.

For a period last season, there were real signs that he was finding his feet. While he was not necessarily roaming as some might have envisaged, his role in the first half of 2020-21 – being more of a withdrawn forward towards the left – saw him become one of LaLiga's standout players.

One theory was that Suarez's signing helped Joao Felix significantly. After all, the Uruguayan enjoyed a near-telepathic on-pitch relationship with Lionel Messi and has always boasted exceptional off-the-ball intelligence. He can make great players look even better.

 

For example, prior to Atletico's 1-0 win over Barca at the Wanda Metropolitano on November 21 last year, Joao Felix had already created the same amount of chances for Suarez (four) as he had for anyone else in all of 2019-20.

But he didn't manage to maintain his status as a standout player for the full season. Bouts of illness, injuries and a suspension all hampered him after the turn of the year as he made just five of his 14 league starts after January 1. In fact, his final total of starts was seven fewer than in 2019-20.

A potential explanation for Joao Felix's disappointing form overall for Atletico was the lack of creativity in central areas behind him. While some might suggest Marcos Llorente's 11 assists in 2020-21 disproves that idea, the former Real Madrid man over-performed his expected assists (xA) by 5.6 – a figure unmatched across LaLiga, suggesting such productivity was not sustainable – while he also did a lot of his best work towards the right.

There had undoubtedly been a major difference between how Joao Felix was used during his first two seasons at Atletico compared to his time with Benfica, where he was seen as more of a genuine striker.

He averaged 2.5 shots per game in 2018-19 with Benfica, and although there wasn't a massive drop-off in his first season at the Wanda Metropolitano (2.4), his expected goals per shot slumped from 0.15 to 0.12. While that may not sound like a lot, it shows a clear indication that the quality of his chances decreased and therefore suggests his similar shot frequency was a result of poor decision-making.

 

His xG per shot improved back up to 0.14 last term, though he was averaging just 1.26 shots each game, half as frequent as at Benfica.

The fact his average number of touches in the box fell from 4.9 per appearance in 2018-19 to 2.7 the following season and then 2.0 last term further highlighted the different role he was adapting to and went some way to explaining why he was having fewer shots.

Certain transfer window additions – especially Antoine Griezmann and Matheus Cunha – had some fans concerned for Joao Felix, given they were likely to be in direct competition with him for places.

Some felt his future was in a more deep-lying role as part of the central midfield trio, but recently he has excelled in a similar playmaking function but further up the pitch. Suddenly it has him looking like the Joao Felix we all knew was in there somewhere.

Rising to the challenge

Following an uncharacteristic recruitment drive for technical players in the most recent transfer window, a key buzzword around Atletico was 'balance'. Preserving balance in the team was going to be a major focus for Simeone as he looked to truly maximise what is arguably the most talented squad he's had as a coach.

At the moment, it appears to be working well, and Joao Felix seems to be nicely suited to the set-up that's being deployed.

Simeone is favouring the use of a front three that is spearheaded by Suarez, with Joao Felix to the left and Griezmann towards the right.

The roles of Joao Felix and Griezmann allow them a certain flexibility. They can go down the outside, but with the use of wing-backs there's not a necessity, therefore Atletico can really overload teams in the final third when the likes of Kieran Trippier and Yannick Carrasco are overlapping out wide.

This appears to suit Joao Felix in particular, and he has thrived in an advanced playmaker role against Real Sociedad and Levante over the past week.

 

Now, it's worth noting that Joao Felix was at fault for La Real's first goal in last weekend's 2-2 draw, but he played a similarly important role in ensuring Atletico fought back, his neat and intricate play in possession a real asset.

He was involved in 41 open-play passing sequences in that match, second only to Koke among Atletico midfielders and forwards. Given it's a metric that tends to be dominated by defenders and central midfielders, Joao Felix's high involvement here speaks to his significant influence.

He was then involved in 44 such sequences against Levante – again, Koke was the only midfielder or forward to be more influential in Atletico's build-up play than Joao Felix.

But there has been more substance to his performances than just build-up involvement – he seems to be relishing the attacking responsibility he has, and there's a certain maturity to be gleaned from that.

For example, it would have been quite easy for Joao Felix to go back inside his shell after coughing up possession in the lead-up to La Real's first goal, but he continued to demand the ball and drive at the defence.

His 22 ball carries was four more than any other midfielder or forward in that game, and there was such positivity in his movement in possession – he progressed 137.5 metres upfield with the ball, at least 45.8m more than any other non-defender on the pitch.

 

These often brought him inside as well as down the wing, from where he caused numerous problems and even set up Suarez's first goal with a gorgeous cross.

Joao Felix's output was then almost identical against Levante, with his carry progress increasing to 140.6m upfield, which was again a match-high among non-defenders, while his 21 overall carries was second only to Koke's 27 in that same group of players.

There are undoubtedly those who will remain unconvinced given he has had only one goal involvement (that assist against La Real) in five league games this season, so why are these figures important?

Well, Joao Felix's prominence in Atletico's build-up shows the influence he's beginning to exert. That, coupled with the positive nature – and frequency – of his ball carries, suggests he's finally found his niche in this team. He's injecting direction and purpose to their attacks.

Obviously, in an ideal world he will manage to add plenty of goals and assists as well in the long run, but for the moment the important thing for Joao Felix is that he finds continuity and consistency.

He looked to have been on the right path this time last year before a complicated second half to 2020-21 – hopefully for his sake this isn't another false dawn.

Atletico Madrid's "world class" strike force of Antoine Griezmann, Luis Suarez, Angel Correa and Joao Felix will help the club to finish above Real Madrid, Barcelona and any other challengers in the LaLiga title race.

That is the view of ex-Valencia, Celta Vigo, Villarreal and Real Zaragoza defender Jose Enrique, who told Stats Perform he also expects Atleti to put up a fight for the Champions League under "annoying" boss Diego Simeone.

The reigning Spanish champions are level on points with city rivals Madrid at LaLiga's summit after eight matches thanks to a 2-0 win over Barcelona – who are five points worse off in ninth with a game in hand – prior to the international break.

Atleti have been far from perfect at the start of their title defence, though, having dropped points against Villarreal, Athletic Bilbao and Deportivo Alaves this term, losing 1-0 to the latter in the shock of the season so far.

Simeone's side have also had to ride their luck at times, with three of their 11 league goals coming in added time and another two arriving in the 78th and 79th minute.

Suarez leads the way with four goals, including a strike against former side Barca two weeks ago, while Correa has three to his name.

With that goal against Barca, the Uruguay international completed the set by scoring against all 31 teams that he has faced in the Spanish top flight.

 

Joao Felix has yet to get off the mark for the LaLiga campaign, though, and Griezmann is also goalless in the league since rejoining from Barcelona at the end of the most recent transfer window.

Yet while Madrid have double the number of goals as Atleti, Jose Enrique rates Los Rojiblancos' attack as the best around and cannot see past them finishing top for a third time in nine seasons this time around.

"I think it will be Atletico," the Spaniard, who also spent eight years in the Premier League with Newcastle United and Liverpool, said when asked who he expects to win the title.

"I know there been some games where they had to struggle in terms of scoring, with 90-something minute winners or whatever. 

"But what they have in the players they have is just incredible. You see the strength of the squad they have. They just signed Griezmann and they have Suarez, Joao Felix, Correa. 

"You talk about those four and for me that could be in any team in the world, and the four of them are strikers.

"Correa can play out on the wing sometimes, Joao Felix as well. But you're talking about four world-class strikers in my opinion. So, for me they are amazing. 

"It is true that that defensively, maybe there's a little bit more. But this is a team that I really believe is going to win the league this year.

"In the Champions League they're going to be annoying again, because Simeone is very, very annoying, always."

Newcastle have the wealthiest owners in the world following their £300million takeover last week.

The Magpies have since been linked to a host of top players including Niklas Sule and Philippe Coutinho, with Timo Werner now joining that list.

The Premier League club are 19th in the table, winless this season with only three points from seven games, which suggests they need significant strengthening.

 

TOP STORY – NEWCASTLE KEEN ON GERMAN STRIKER

Newcastle are set to splash the cash and could make a bid to sign Chelsea's German striker Timo Werner, says Bild.

The report claims Newcastle have been "in regular contact" with Werner's agent ahead of the January transfer window.

Werner joined Chelsea in a £47.5million deal in June last year from RB Leipzig.

ROUND-UP

- Juventus are willing to sell France international midfielder Adrien Rabiot, with Newcastle linked as a suitor, as they raise funds for moves for Monaco's Aurelien Tchouameni and Manchester United's Donny van de Beek.

- Marca claims Real Madrid are looking to sign Chelsea's Germany international defender Antonio Rudiger, who is out of contract at the end of this season.

- Liverpool are open to the idea of bringing Philippe Coutinho back to Anfield from Barcelona in January, claims the Express.

- Fichajes claims Liverpool are also considering a £68million (€80m) swoop for Atletico Madrid star Joao Felix, while they also progress contract talks with Mohamed Salah.

- Barcelona and Milan are top of the queue in the pursuit to sign Jesse Lingard if he leaves Old Trafford on a free transfer at the end of this season, according to the Daily Mail.

- Phil Foden has agreed terms on a new six-year contract with Manchester City, reports Goal.com.

Atletico Madrid head coach Diego Simeone has backed star forward pair Luis Suarez and Antoine Griezmann after their slow starts to the new LaLiga season.

The Spanish champions drew 0-0 with Athletic Bilbao in LaLiga on Saturday, days after another scoreless draw against FC Porto in the Champions League.

Suarez has netted only once in six appearances this term for Atleti, while Griezmann is yet to score in three games since his deadline day move from Barcelona.

"I have full confidence in all my players. I am aware that Luis was the last one to join the team alongside [Angel] Correa, [Kieran] Trippier and [Ramon] Lodi," Simeone said.

"They are the last ones who joined us in the pre-season. Then, in the international break, when he was getting fully fit, he had to stop following some physical issues.

"Now it is normal that it is taking some time for him to get fit but he eventually will, as he is a very important player for us."

On Griezmann, Simeone added: "I have full confidence in Antoine. He is a very important player for our team and all I had to tell him about is what I saw from his performances and which aspects I want him to improve on, and I have already told him this."

Atletico's chances of beating Bilbao on Saturday were not helped by Joao Felix's sending off, with the Portuguese forward dismissed after a second bookable offence for dissent.

In the wake of the game, Simeone downplayed Joao Felix's actions but he added on Monday that the side need to do better, having received 10 yellow cards in five games for complaining to referees.

"No, we must improve on that aspect, you just mentioned," he said. "I have no doubts we will do that.

"We really respect the Referee's Committee and yes, sometimes you can talk with them [in the games], but we are aiming to reduce those numbers because they are not good from us."

Atletico will take on Getafe away from home in LaLiga on Tuesday.

Diego Simeone believes Joao Felix was unfortunate to be sent off in Atletico Madrid's draw with Athletic Bilbao, suggesting no one else would have seen red in similar circumstances. 

Atletico slumped to a third successive home draw across all competitions for the first time since October 2019, as Athletic frustrated them in a 0-0 stalemate. 

The visitors created the better chances, their accumulative xG total of 1.2 coming from six shots whereas Atletico recorded 1.1 from 14 attempts, though Marcelino Garcia Toral's men wasted two glorious opportunities. 

Simeone's side were not helped by the dismissal of Joao Felix for two bookings in quick succession 12 minutes from time, the Portugal international first shown a yellow card for catching his marker with a flailing arm and then his protests earned him another, resulting in a red card. 

Joao Felix's reaction included a gesture that most people would consider was questioning the referee's sanity as he pointed to his head, but Simeone seemingly thought official Jesus Gil Manzano's decision to send the forward off was harsh. 

"I did the same thing a lot of times," the former Argentina midfielder told reporters. "I was not in line with what I should have done, but as I grew older I corrected that. 

"I'm close to Joao and I don't care about this episode. If that gesture is made by someone else, he probably wouldn't be sent off. The referee doesn't react in the same way. 

"There were a lot of yellow cards. It's necessary to look for the sensitivity of the moment of the yellow cards – sometimes players have to talk [to the referee] during the game. It's not a yellow for asking a question. 

"Gil Manzano told me not to tell him to be calm when he was calm... He's a great referee, he has had very good performances for us last season, but the sensitivity depending on the day generates different feelings." 

 

While Simeone was somewhat magnanimous regarding Gil Manzano, Stefan Savic was clearly perturbed by the officiating of the referee, who was also in charge in April when Sevilla beat Atletico 1-0 thanks to a Marcos Acuna goal that was allowed to stand after a handball in the build-up was deemed accidental. 

Atletico ended Saturday's game with four players on a yellow card and Joao Felix having been dismissed – that took them to 20 from just five games, five more than any other team and Savic is baffled. 

"We are calm, but we don't know what's happening. We're unlucky or this is crazy," Savic added. "We have to look ahead. 

"We must think about the things that we can influence, but it cannot be that they [officials] give 15 [20] cards to us. 

"We're not the only ones who protest in a match. The tempo rises, the tension rises – there are hot heads, and you have to understand that. 

"Everyone must understand that it's not the same to speak with a cool head, as during the match your adrenaline rises. 

"You cannot speak with Gil Manzano. We told him that he can't draw a card for each word that's said, so it's better to not say anything [about the referee]." 

Atletico Madrid lacked the required cutting edge to beat Athletic Bilbao as the defending Spanish champions had Joao Felix sent off in a 0-0 draw at the Wanda Metropolitano.

Diego Simeone's side had been hoping to prove their struggles in a stalemate against Porto in midweek were not indicative of wider problems, but they disappointed the home crowd again.

The hosts had looked promising at the start, though Athletic soon grew into the game and defensively they were able to frustrate Atletico.

Inaki Williams was unable to make the most of a rare moment of defensive frailty from Los Colchoneros, though they were never made to rue his miss as Atletico failed to break the deadlock, the post denying Marcos Llorente late on before Joao Felix's red card encapsulated the home side's frustration.

Atletico enjoyed some pressure during the early exchanges, with Antoine Griezmann shooting wide from close range and Stefan Savic heading into the arms of Unai Simon from a similar distance.

But those half-chances were hardly precursors to a sustained onslaught, with Atletico not worrying Athletic again before the break.

They came out after the interval with renewed purpose, as Angel Correa headed just wide from Renan Lodi's cross.

But Athletic crafted the best chance of the game two minutes later, Williams poking the ball through Jose Gimenez's legs before charging through on goal, only to let Atletico off the hook by not even hitting the target when one-on-one with Jan Oblak.

Simeone turned to Luis Suarez – seemingly dropped after an ineffective showing against Porto – as he made four substitutions in five minutes before the hour, though the Uruguayan's lack of pace was glaring when unable to run through on goal when released by fellow substitute Yannick Carrasco.

Llorente attempted to take matters into his own hands but saw his long-range effort crash off the post, before Atletico's chances took a final blow when Joao Felix – another sub – was booked twice in quick succession, the second for dissent, and he left the pitch in a furious mood.

Asier Villalibre then squandered a glorious chance to win it in stoppage-time, slicing over with only Oblak in his path.

Opportunism was the name of the game for Atletico Madrid in 2020-21 and, ultimately, it led them all the way to the title.

First, they pounced on the opportunity to sign Luis Suarez, then Diego Simeone's squad enjoyed a commanding start to the season that left their rivals playing catch-up.

Lionel Messi's situation at Barcelona contributed to the Blaugrana being slow out of the blocks, and although Atletico almost contrived to throw it all away in the latter stages of the season, they proved their resilience in seeing it out.

While opportunism led to success then, this season Atletico arguably find themselves on the cusp of a new, dominant era. Barca are in an even greater mess than 12 months ago and no longer have Messi to bail them out, while Madrid's only major signing has been David Alaba – in contrast, they have lost Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane is Manchester bound too. Add Zinedine Zidane's departure to that and it is very much a picture of transition at the newly refurbed Santiago Bernabeu.

Atletico, meanwhile, have not lost any key players and have even improved their midfield options with the signing of Rodrigo De Paul. It was not so long ago that Simeone's future seemed uncertain, but the past year has brought out a new side in him and that's helped Los Colchoneros reign in Spain.

Flexible Simeone turns over a new leaf

Throughout Simeone's time in charge of Atletico, there has been a common theme – you can either call it consistency or inflexibility, but it essentially depends on whether you are a critic or a fan.

However, it is difficult to say he was inflexible last season by any stretch of the imagination. Now, whether that was decisive in their title triumph is impossible to say, yet it does show Simeone is perhaps not the one-trick pony some insist he is.

For much of his decade at the helm, Simeone has almost religiously set his teams up in a rigid 4-4-2 formation, or at least something not too dissimilar. A back four has been the cornerstone of his systems. According to Opta data, he only ever started a match with a back three or five six times before 2020-21.

Yet, in the championship-winning campaign, Atletico lined up with a back three or five in 23 of their 38 LaLiga matches. Simeone had amassed a group of players with wide-ranging skillsets that aided versatility, and he truly embraced that.

Yannick Carrasco's work-rate saw him turned into a wing-back; Kieran Trippier's arguably suspect defensive capabilities became less of a concern because he was stationed further up the pitch. In attack, Luis Suarez and whoever partnered him – usually Joao Felix or Angel Correa – offered unpredictable movement that often saw them push out wide to create space for Marcos Llorente to run into.

 

Of course, that didn't occur all the time, but it is notable how all 12 of Llorente's goals came from either positions in the box or central positions just outside the area despite a lot of his work coming down the right flank in tandem with Trippier.

This flexibility in the final third also seemed to contribute to their effectiveness off the ball. Their 43 shot-ending high turnovers was bettered by only Barcelona and Eibar, though that figure equated to 15.3 per cent of their total high turnovers (281).

That percentage was better than both of those teams above them in the category, suggesting Atletico were more effective at turning those situations into danger, despite their PPDA of 11.5 only being the 12th lowest in the league.

But the overriding feeling looking back at Atletico in 2020-21 was the only real ammunition Simeone's critics had – that he was inflexible – seems to have lost relevance.

 

De Paul is Simeone's ideal schemer

It was only a matter of time before De Paul sought a new home after an excellent five-year spell in Italy with Udinese. It was there that he got his career back on track after struggling to make much of an impact with Valencia during his previous attempt to succeed in Spain.

He was a regular throughout his five years in Serie A but enjoyed his finest campaign of all in 2020-21, displaying a skillset that looks an ideal fit for the requirements of a Simeone team.

Throughout Simeone's 10 years as Atletico coach, his signings of creative players have tended to be hit and miss, with it a common perception that his intense demands both in training and during matches can sometimes stifle more mercurial talents who are not used to such workloads.

But De Paul, who is comfortable playing both centrally and out wide, has shown plenty of evidence he should be up to the challenge.

 

Providing creativity is De Paul's bread and butter, with his 82 key passes in 2020-21 bettered by only Hakan Calhanoglu (98) in Serie A. Of those chances, 34 came from set-pieces, highlighting his prowess from dead-ball situations and ranking him fourth in Italy's top flight.

Only five players got more assists than his nine, but all of them massively out-performed their modest expected assists (xA) records, which ranged from 3.4 to 6.7. De Paul topped the charts for expected assists with 10.3 xA, evidence that his assists reflected the quality of his service rather than him getting lucky or benefiting from unusually good finishing by team-mates.

Yet the area that highlights a particular compatibility with Atleti is the fact he won more duels (294) than anyone else in Serie A in 2020-21.

Combine that with his league-leading completed dribbles (122) and it paints a picture of a hard-working player who also possesses the quality to get his team on the front foot.

His creativity and dribbling abilities are two facets that Atletico don't necessarily have in abundance in their central midfield options, yet he balances those with a genuine work ethic. De Paul could well be an absolute triumph of a signing.

Joao Felix's time?

Joao Felix's 2019 arrival at the Wanda Metropolitano was met by the clamouring of Simeone critics suggesting this was the signing that would finally see the renowned pragmatist cut loose and suddenly become the entertainer many hoped he could be.

It didn't work out that way. In fact, their haul of 51 LaLiga goals in 2019-20 was the lowest they had managed since scoring just 46 in 2006-07 – they somehow became even tougher to watch.

This did not do much to convince those adamant Simeone was to blame for Joao Felix's form – many people called for the young talent to be given a "free role" that allowed him to play without the shackles normally associated with the coach's disciplined system.

But for a period in 2020-21, there were real signs that Joao Felix was beginning to find his feet. While he was not necessarily roaming as some might have envisioned, his role - being more of a withdrawn forward towards the left - in the first half of last season saw him become one of LaLiga's standout players.

One theory was that Suarez's signing helped Joao Felix significantly. After all, the Uruguayan enjoyed a near-telepathic on-pitch relationship with Messi and has always boasted exceptional off-ball intelligence. He can make great players look even better.

 

For example, prior to Atletico's 1-0 win over Barca at the Wanda Metropolitano on November 21 last year, Joao Felix had already created the same amount of chances for Suarez (four) as he had for anyone else in all of 2019-20.

But it's fair to say the Portugal talent did not manage to maintain his status as a standout player for the full season. Bouts of illness, injuries and a suspension all hampered him after the turn of the year as he made just five of his 14 league starts after January 1. In fact, his final total of starts was seven fewer than in 2019-20.

Joao Felix's productivity was not as impressive as a result. He went from creating 1.5 chances per game to 0.9 and appeared far less willing to run with the ball, attempting 26 dribbles compared to 43 before January 1.

Sure, his assists count went up from two to three, though between January 1 and the end of the season his expected assists (xA) value was just 0.77, suggesting he benefited from some help from his team-mates.

Joao Felix's influence in build-up play did not change dramatically, only going down to 4.0 shot-ending sequence involvements from 4.9, which was not massively better than he managed in 2019-20 (4.64), but he lacked the sharpness to make the difference at the top end of the pitch as often.

Hopefully 2021-22 will have less upheaval for him and allow for greater consistency. With Messi gone, LaLiga needs a new headline superstar – Joao Felix has the talent, but whether Atletico and Simeone can truly harness it is another matter entirely.

Nevertheless, Atleti excelled even when Joao Felix was not hitting the heights expected. As they see Barca and Madrid appearing significantly weaker, Simeone and his players are heading into 2021-22 as the team to beat.

Spain and Portugal drew 0-0 at the Wanda Metropolitano on Friday in an engaging warm-up friendly ahead of Euro 2020.

The previous two champions of Europe could not be separated in Madrid as Alvaro Morata and Diogo Jota missed the pick of the chances.

Luis Enrique and Fernando Santos named strong starting line-ups for an energetic first half, with Manchester City's Aymeric Laporte winning his first cap at the heart of the Spanish defence.

Laporte was a little fortunate not to be punished with 21 minutes left as Cristiano Ronaldo got free in the box before heading wide from one of the quieter second half's few good openings.

After a slick start in possession, Spain looked to have conceded from Portugal's first attack, but Jose Fonte's powerful header was disallowed for a push.

Ferran Torres missed Spain's first clear-cut chance, nodding wide at the far post after Morata crossed expertly from the left.

Ronaldo and Renato Sanches combined well to trigger a counter-attack, and the Portugal captain was almost presented with a chance when Spain goalkeeper Unai Simon's attempted clearance cannoned off the Juventus star.

Morata threatened twice just after the restart, denied by Simon and then by a Fonte block, with his follow-up effort bobbling wide, before Pablo Sarabia steered a good chance over the bar.

Portugal then should have taken the lead on the hour mark, Jota's header from six yards out deflected over after Ronaldo clipped a cross to the left-hand post.

Ronaldo then glanced wide from Bruno Fernandes' wicked delivery, Laporte given a let-off after allowing the forward a free header in the box.

Koke almost forced the winner in the closing minutes, his free-kick from the left of the box parried away by Rui Patricio before it could creep into the bottom-right corner. Morata should have won the contest in injury time, but could only rattle the crossbar after being gifted a free run at goal.

 

What does it mean? Euros heavyweights in need of sharpening before finals

Each of these sides have reason to be pleased with their performance on Friday, although a few more training sessions for the forwards would not go amiss.

There were just three efforts on target in the contest and two of those came in the dying minutes through Koke's free-kick, which was glanced on by Torres, and a last-gasp header from Danilo Pereira that Simon saved comfortably. 

Busquets doing the old guard proud

Sergio Busquets is one of the few surviving bastions of Spain's 2008-2012 dominance of the international stage, keeping his place in the squad despite not always looking his sharpest for Barcelona in 2020-21.

He managed 63 commanding minutes here at the heart of midfield, winning back possession 12 times and making 34 passes in the Portugal half – each game-high totals during his time on the pitch.

Few home comforts for Joao Felix

Atletico Madrid's Joao Felix gave the home fans few reasons to worry in his 45-minute outing.

Ill-suited to Portugal's early counter-attacking play, he completed only six passes before being withdrawn at the break for debutant Pote.

What's next?

Each side has one more warm-up game before their Euros campaigns start. Spain face Lithuania in Leganes on Tuesday, while Portugal host Israel in Lisbon on Wednesday.

Diego Simeone admitted there was no guarantee Joao Felix would be fit to face Sevilla in LaLiga on Sunday as he waited for news from the Atletico Madrid club doctor.

The 21-year-old forward came off injured before half-time during Portugal's 3-1 win against Luxembourg in World Cup qualifying on Tuesday, returning to Atletico with the problem.

According to reports, Joao Felix trained separately from the Atletico squad on Saturday, with head coach Simeone essentially powerless to influence the situation.

"For Joao, we are still waiting for him," Simeone said in a news conference.

"The doctor is looking for a way to see if he is in a position to help us and we will wait until tonight to decide whether or not he travels to Seville."

Atletico's lead at the top of LaLiga has shrunk to four points over Barcelona with 10 rounds of games remaining, and Simeone will want as close to a full-strength squad as possible.

Sevilla, who sit fourth, are a team capable of dealing another blow to Atleti's hopes of moving closer to the title.

Joao Felix has scored seven goals and had four assists in LaLiga this season, with Luis Suarez's 19 top-flight goals doing the most damage in attack for Simeone's men.

"The boys are working with great enthusiasm," said Simeone. "Whenever they come from the national team they come back with great enthusiasm.

"It is always very good for a footballer to be with his national team, representing his country, and defending the shirt where he was born, and I always believe that that is very positive for the preparation of a footballer.

"As for Sevilla, they are a team that play very well, who have [Julen] Lopetegui, a coach who makes them play in a very dynamic way, always looking for options of numerical superiority, where they can find it.

"There is a lot of variety in their squad, it must be one of the most balanced and balanced squads of all."

Sevilla will be without Sergio Escudero after the left-back tested positive for coronavirus.

Joao Felix is not expected to be a combative player for Portugal, but Fernando Santos suggested the Atletico Madrid star must do more to stand out.

Portugal came from behind to beat Luxembourg 3-1 on Tuesday, moving top of World Cup qualifying Group A in the process.

Gerson Rodrigues scored his second goal in as many games to put Luxembourg ahead, but Diogo Jota, Cristiano Ronaldo and substitute Joao Palhinha sealed the points for Portugal.

Jota's equaliser – a header from inside the six-yard box – was teed up by the Liverpool forward's former Wolves team-mate Pedro Neto, who replaced Joao Felix in the 41st minute.

Making his first start of the qualifying campaign, Joao Felix appeared to be struggling with an injury to his right ankle, seemingly sustained when he had a shot blocked in Luxembourg's box.

It was the youngster's only attempt, while he also failed to create a chance and completed just 18 of 25 attempted passes.

Neto, on the other hand, ended the match with two assists, for Jota and Palhinha respectively, and it was a performance that drew the praise of Santos, who hinted that it is difficult to fit Joao Felix into a certain role in his team.

"Neto had different movement, another dynamic, he looked for depth, he went looking for the ball," Santos told reporters.

"He always participated in defensive actions. Joao always had more difficulty. He has his own way of playing, he is not a combative player, we are not expecting that either.

"He has a lot of technical quality, he has the quality to make a difference, but we all have to be together so that these things can work."

It is an issue that has also stymied Joao Felix's Atleti career to date, with the 21-year-old delivering some quality displays at the start of the campaign, but scoring just twice in LaLiga since the turn of the year.

Ronaldo's goal was his 103rd for Portugal, taking the 36-year-old to within six strikes of Iran legend Ali Daei's record, while he has also scored in every calendar year since making his international debut in 2004.

The Juventus star squandered two gilt-edged chances to double his tally at 2-1, in what was a rather laboured performance from the reigning European champions, and Santos acknowledged he has to strike a balance between playing to the strengths of the attacking talent he has available, while also remaining organised.

"Technical quality alone doesn't win here, if we don't balance these important factors," he added. 

"It's not that the players don't want to. We had difficulties. But then there was an instant reaction, we scored in an important moment.

"The second half was [better]. The goals appeared and we could have scored more. We had opportunities."

Portugal boss Fernando Santos hailed the impact made by Joao Felix against Azerbaijan and said no conclusions can be made following his side's unconvincing 1-0 win.

Santos claimed his 50th victory in charge of Portugal in his 80th match thanks to Maksim Medvedev's first-half own goal in Wednesday's World Cup 2022 qualifying fixture at the Allianz Stadium in Turin.

The European champions managed 14 shots on target - compared to none for Azerbaijan - but struggled to find a way past inspired goalkeeper Sahruddin Mahammadaliyev.

Despite the slender nature of the scoreline against a side ranked 108th in the world, Santos insisted picking up three points in the Group A opener is all that counts.

"We won, which was the most important thing," he told RTP. "These games can be difficult.

"I expected to win more comfortably, but we must not draw conclusions. We can see what went well and didn't.

"In the first half we controlled things, though sometimes we could have built attacks better 

"I think that in the first half Azerbaijan didn't even pass the midfield mark. The team was well organised, compact, reacted well to losing the ball.

"The game was controlled, but we lacked when it came to creating certain chances.

"Azerbaijan started playing in the second half. At that moment we were not so strong in the recovery and we allowed three or four attacks." 

Joao Felix was brought on for Andre Silva 15 minutes from time and completed 12 of his 14 passes, 11 of those attempted passes in the opposition half.

Santos felt the Atletico Madrid forward made a telling impact on the game, even if it was a familiar tale for Portugal as Mahammadaliyev made a string of late saves.

"The team improved with the entry of Joao," Santos said. "There was more circulation to our play and he played a part in one of our best moves - it was brilliant."

Portugal have now won five games in a row against Azerbaijan without conceding and have lost just two of their last 25 matches since the last World Cup.

The Selecao turns their focus to Saturday's trip to second seeds Serbia, who beat the Republic of Ireland 3-2 to join Portugal on three points at the top of Group A.

Santos added: "Entering that game with victory was essential and now we are going to talk as a group and analyse the game. 

"The Serbia match will be different [to the Azerbaijan one], but I always maintain confidence in my players."

Azerbaijan had drawn their previous four games by the same 0-0 scoreline and head coach Giovanni De Biasi is taking confidence from the narrow loss to Portugal.

"I am happy and disappointed," he told UEFA.com "We tried to play our football only in the second half. Never say never, football is made of dreams and we can qualify."

Atletico Madrid star Joao Felix has denied there are problems between him and head coach Diego Simeone.

The Portugal star has struggled for consistency at the Wanda Metropolitano and Simeone appeared to question his work-rate last week, although he later claimed his comments had been misinterpreted.

The €126million attacker is set to start on Wednesday at Stamford Bridge, where Atleti will attempt to overturn a 1-0 deficit to Chelsea in the Champions League last 16.

The 21-year-old, who has vowed to make sure he maximises his talent during his career, now hopes to prove there is a strong working relationship at the club.

"I'm happy here, my family are too. There are good and not-so-good phases everywhere," he told reporters on Tuesday.

"I had to defend for Benfica and the national team, too. I'll do what I have to do here.

"Without will, talent doesn't come through. Many talented players could not reach the top due to not having will and I don't want that to happen to me.

"The moment for me has to be all the time. We're strong because we're a very strong group. And that will be the case tomorrow."

Joao Felix caused a stir with a pointed celebration after scoring against Villarreal, in which he made a 'shushing' gesture, something that delighted Simeone.

The player himself says the incident was simply part of a joke with team-mate Renan Lodi, which was blown out of proportion.

"I already said on Instagram that it was a joke with Lodi. The press likes to talk about things they don't know about," he said.

"My relationship with Cholo is very good. He always tries to help me. We're here to help each other."

Atleti are unbeaten under Simeone in two previous Champions League trips to Stamford Bridge and have progressed from four of the eight two-legged ties in the competition in which they have lost the first leg.

However, a run of two wins in 10 away games in the knockouts does not bode well against a side who are unbeaten in 12 matches under Thomas Tuchel and have conceded only twice in that run.

Simeone hopes to turn that good form into a negative for Chelsea, who have had to cope with only minimal setbacks since Tuchel replaced Frank Lampard.

"I believe today Chelsea don't have a weakness," he said. "The only thing is they don't know what can happen from a negative point of view. 

"They have not had a negative result yet and that will be a question until it happens.

"We are facing a team that has done quite well since their coach has come, they have never lost. They feel strong at home and are playing quite well. 

"They have had games like us around the Champions League matches that have been close and tough. We have to take the match where we want so we can win with a goal. The single idea is to win."

Simeone is backing Luis Suarez to make the difference and end his barren Champions League run, the Uruguay striker having not scored in the competition this season.

Suarez's away run in the competition is of greater concern, the 34-year-old having failed to score in his previous 25 such games for Atleti and Barcelona since netting in a 1-1 draw with Roma at Stadio Olimpico in September 2015.

"I believe Suarez is very important for us," Simeone said. "Probably tomorrow is the right day for Luis Suarez to end the streak. Why not? Tomorrow could be a beautiful day."

A second coming for Cristiano Ronaldo in the Spanish capital?

After a trophy-laden spell with Real Madrid, Ronaldo made the switch to Juventus.

But Madrid's all-time leading goalscorer is reportedly keen on a second stint at the Santiago Bernabeu.

 

TOP STORY – RONALDO EYEING MADRID REUNION

Cristiano Ronaldo wants to return to Real Madrid, according to the frontpage of Saturday's Diario AS.

Ronaldo's future with Juventus has been placed in doubt following the club's Champions League last-16 exit.

The five-time Ballon d'Or winner, who left Madrid for Juve in 2018, has reportedly been in contact with Los Blancos for months.

 

ROUND-UP

- New Barcelona president Joan Laporta will offer superstar captain Lionel Messi a fresh contract in the coming weeks, reports Mundo Deportivo. The deal would include Messi – heavily tipped to join either Paris Saint-Germain or Manchester City as a free agent at the end of the season – becoming a club ambassador after retirement. Laporta is also set to push ahead with moves for Bayern Munich's David Alaba, Borussia Dortmund sensation Erling Haaland and City forward Sergio Aguero.

City lead the race to sign Haaland, according to the Daily Mail. Haaland is a player in demand, linked with Manchester United, Chelsea, LiverpoolJuve, PSG, Barca and Madrid.

Joao Felix is also an option at the Etihad Stadium. Cuatro claims the Atletico Madrid star is a target if Aguero leaves City.

- Le10Sport claims PSG remain in talks with Neymar over a four-year contract extension. A deal is believed to be some way off.

Harry Maguire wants United to sign an English-speaking defender, reports The Transfer Window Podcast. The Red Devils have been linked with Madrid captain Sergio Ramos and team-mate Raphael Varane, Sevilla's Jules Kounde, RB Leipzig centre-back Ibrahima Konate and Napoli star Kalidou Koulibaly. But Brighton and Hove Albion's Ben White has emerged as a target.

- TMW Radio says Atletico could be set to make a move for Napoli midfielder Fabian Ruiz. The Spain international has been previously linked with Barca and Madrid.

Diego Simeone has clarified comments made regarding Joao Felix after recalling the forward for Atletico Madrid's 2-1 win against Athletic Bilbao.

Speaking on the eve of Wednesday's LaLiga clash at the Wanda Metropolitano, Simeone appeared to call into question the Portugal international's lack of work-rate.

"We are a team, not just one player," he told reporters. "We need everyone's contribution so that the team can function as a team, and that individuals and talent can excel."

Joao Felix has scored two goals in his past 16 games and was dropped to the bench for the 1-1 draw with Real Madrid at the weekend, but he played 67 minutes against Athletic.

However, Simeone insists his remarks were misconstrued as he was talking in a more general manner, rather than about the 21-year-old specifically.

"Either I express myself badly, they interpret me badly or they just do what they want," he said at his post-match news conference.

"I speak of a general will. It is the most important thing in life; without it, the rest does not exist."

Atletico's win over Athletic in their game in hand moved them six points clear of Barcelona at the top of LaLiga and a further two points in front of Real Madrid.

Iker Muniain gave the visitors the lead in the Spanish capital, but Marcos Llorente equalised in first-half stoppage time and Luis Suarez scored a penalty winner in the 51st minute.

It was just Atleti's second win in five matches in all competitions during a patchy spell and Simeone was pleased with the way they responded to a late setback against Madrid, when Karim Benzema equalised in the 88th minute.

"It was very important how they reacted after Sunday. We needed to return to winning ways at home," said Simeone, who has overtaken Luis Aragones for the most wins in charge of Atletico with 309 in all competitions.  

"What I liked the most was that it went from a bad moment with them the better team and well positioned, to us being on top. 

"The second half was very good, and we are now level with the others in terms of the number of games played."

Llorente's headed equaliser was his ninth LaLiga goal of the campaign, adding to his eight assists in what has been an impressive season for the Spain international.

Manchester United's Bruno Fernandes (26) is the only midfielder to have been directly involved in more goals in Europe's top five leagues this term than Llorente, who has emerged as one of Atletico's star men over the past year.

"Marcos, for a year, had no minutes. He was on the bench but continued training, working hard and had that will that leads you to be at this moment," Simeone said. 

"He is very important for us and surely for the national team as well."

Suarez won the penalty that he converted – the striker being tripped in the box by Unai Nunez – and has now earned Atletico 15 points from his 18 league goals this term.

That is four points more than any other individual has won their side in the Spanish top flight in 2020-21, but Simeone reiterated Atleti's title charge is a collective effort.

"I look to the group as a whole because individuals alone do not change a game," he said. 

"The team understood that we were not having a good time – they looked for order and then the group and the team generated a second half that we liked a lot."

Athletic were unhappy with the awarding of the decisive penalty and also argued that Llorente's goal should not have stood, coming as it did 17 seconds after the allotted two added minutes.

Marcelino, whose side are without a point away to Atletico since May 2015, felt the scoreline was harsh on his side as the hosts scored two goals from five shots on target.

"I am very satisfied with the performance of my side and I'm sad with the result because Atletico essentially took advantage of one hundred percent of their chances," he said.

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