Saul Niguez rises to the occasion again in Europe as Atletico pull level atop Group A
MADRID -- Three points from the Wanda Metropolitano on Atletico Madrid's 2-0 win over Borussia Dortmund in Group A of the Champions League.
1. Atletico get revenge on Dortmund; both heading for last 16
Atletico Madrid all but assured passage to the Champions League last 16, while helping themselves to a spot of revenge, with a comfortable 2-0 win against Borussia Dortmund in Tuesday's Champions League Group A clash at the Wanda Metropolitano.
Club Brugges' shock 4-0 win at Monaco in the group's other game earlier on Tuesday definitely had an effect on the mood here -- as it made it more or less certain that both Dortmund and Atletico will qualify for the last 16.
Atletico's motivation remained much the greater given the lingering pain of their 4 -0 defeat in last month's reverse fixture in Germany, and Diego Simeone's side were totally in control almost from the off. Angel Correa and Nikola Kalinic came close early, with the home team faster and stronger all over the park.
Saul Niguez's opener was the best moment of the opening half, and Atletico could have had at least a couple more before the break, with Filipe Luis, Correa, Antoine Griezmann, Lucas Hernandez and Thomas Partey all going close.
At 0-0 Dortmund had been warned about time-wasting by referee Daniele Orsato, a sign that victory was not a huge priority. Their attitude was a bit different after they finally arrived back late from the half-time break, possibly after a tongue-lashing from first-year coach Lucien Favre.
Atletico were happier to sit and watch now, so the visitors had more of the ball in the second half. Substitute Raphael Guerreiro came closest to an equaliser when he headed over Paco Alcacer's cross from close range. Favre's side did not create much else though, and a first defeat of 2018-19 was deserved.
Griezmann showed excellent balance and composure to finish a sweeping counter-attack to make it 2-0 with 10 minutes remaining. The final score will not totally wipe out the memory of last month's defeat in Germany, but it did put Atletico back level on points with Dortmund at the top of the Group A standings.
2. Saul shines on the big stage again
Given Atletico's first-half dominance, the only surprise was that it took half an hour for the opening goal to arrive. But it was worth the wait. Excellent work by Saul and Kalinic in the centre freed Luis down the wing, and after the cross was cleverly dummied by Correa, Saul arrived just in time to hammer the ball to the net via a failed clearance by Borussia Dortmund's Manuel Akanji.
The scorer should not have been a mystery -- Saul loves the big stage, and especially high-profile European nights. This was his 12th goal in 57 UEFA appearances, an excellent record for a box-to-box midfielder and one that compares strikingly to a more mundane 14 in 126 La Liga games with Atletico.
The Elche-born player also has some impressive "victims" in this competition, including spectacular goals at key moments against Bayern Munich, Leicester and Chelsea in past seasons. That all nine of his Champions League tallies have been the first goal of the game is another sign of an ability to time his interventions. Then there was also his fine strike for Spain against England at Wembley earlier this season.
Saul also did his bread and butter excellently, outmuscling Dortmund's bruiser Axel Witsel in the midfield battle. Still just 23, he will have many more big European nights to come.
3. Dortmund's young stars have an off-day
Dortmund's front four was very exciting on paper -- with Barcelona loanee Paco Alcacer starting up front on his return to Spain, Marco Reus playing as the No. 10, and youngsters Jadon Sancho and Christian Pulisic on the wings.
Sancho came into the game with four goals in his last five appearances and looked confident early on with a couple of clever stepovers inside the Atletico area against Juanfran.
But the next noticeable intervention from the England international, still just 18, was a yellow card for pulling Juanfran's jersey, after he had let his 33-year-old marker get away. On the other side, U.S. phenom Pulisic, 20, was nowhere to be seen when his man, 33-year-old Filipe Luis, set up Atletico's opener.
The talented pair were both withdrawn well before the end. Their time will come, quite possibly in the UCL knockout stages after Christmas, but neither will look back on this visit to the Wanda Metropolitano as a high point of their careers so far.