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Aug 30, 2014

Three Points: Atletico vs. Eibar

Atletico struggled at times on Saturday but held on for a solid 2-1 win vs. Eibar.

MADRID -- Three quick thoughts from Atletico Madrid's 2-1 La Liga win over Eibar at the Vicente Calderon...

1. Atletico still have set-piece knack

105 days after actually winning the La Liga title in last season's final game at Barcelona, Atletico captain Gabi was actually presented with the trophy tonight. The fans inside the Estadio Vicente Calderon gave their team a well-deserved ovation as last season's incredible achievement was recalled again.

The home crowd were cheering again just 11 minutes into their first home game of the Liga season, as Atletico went 1-0 up with the goal having a very familiar look to it. Koke's corner was excellent and Miranda was unmarked at the near post to head home from about three yards. Before the half-hour mark it was already 2-0, again from a set piece. This time it was Gabi with the delivery and Mario Mandzukic who converted with his head from near the penalty spot.

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Atletico scored 17 times from corners in La Liga last year -- including Diego Godin's title-winner at the Camp Nou -- and did so again in the recent Spanish Supercopa first leg against Real Madrid. Ten of Atletico's last 13 goals in La Liga have been headers. The deliveries from Gabi and Koke are often excellent; the movement of Godin, Miranda, Mandzukic and Raul Garcia is also very clever, with some attacking the ball and others [accidentally or not] blocking the runs of their markers.

Opponents must surely know what is coming when Atletico get a corner or free kick around the box, but few teams are capable of stopping it.

2. Atletico need to sign a schemer or a speedster -- or both

Atletico still having the knack of scoring from set-pieces is useful, as from open play they created very few clear cut opportunities over the 90 minutes.

In four games this season (two in the Supercopa, two in La Liga) Atletico have scored four goals, and three have come from corners. The other was the winner in the Supercopa against Real Madrid, when new boys Antoine Griezmann and Mario Mandzukic combined so well.

Yet there was little combination play on show this Saturday from the duo, or from Koke or Raul Garcia in wide midfield. Griezmann was especially disappointing, playing in a roving No. 10 role off Mandzukic with a brief to come deep and get involved. There were a few bright moments but mostly it was a frustrating evening for the Frenchman, with moves regularly breaking down in midfield.

Mario Mandzukic was on the money again for Atleti but Saturday's display shows that they need more attacking help.

Griezmann was hauled off on 60 minutes and Atletico's third new striker, Raul Jimenez, came on, yet the pattern of the game did not change too much. The Mexican international glanced a header straight at visiting keeper Xabi Irureta, but did not link too well with teammates.

With 25 minutes left Atletico's acting coach German Burgos -- the banned Diego Simeone sat high up in the stands -- took off Mandzukic to shore up midfield with youngster Saul Niguez. Arda Turan would have been a more positive change, but the Turkish playmaker is still not fit enough to contribute and his continuing hamstring issues are now a real concern for the Colchoneros.

Speculation through recent weeks has linked the club with a number of new attackers -- ranging from speedsters Marco Reus and Alessio Cerci to schemers such as Xherdan Shaqiri. Atletico's problem, as always, is money -- they need to move on either Toby Alderweireld or Christian Rodriguez, or preferably both, before they can spend any cash.

However they do it, adding some extra pace and imagination -- ideally both -- before the transfer window shuts on Monday looks necessary if Atletico are to even come close to defending their title this season.

3. Eibar can play

The well-organised Basques conceded just 28 goals in 42 games as they surprisingly won the Segunda Division last season, even starting this term with a clean sheet last week at home to Real Sociedad. Coach Gaizka Garitano admitted yesterday that he saw Atletico as a model, "a mirror in which we can see ourselves" -- a team who through hard work and clever management were able to finish above richer and more talented rivals.

Garitano also prepared his team for the physical challenge of playing Atletico and his side began well, forcing some early corners and set-pieces around the penalty area from which Javi Lara's deliveries caused some problems for the home defence. But then their marking was not good at corners, allowing Miranda and Mandzukic to give Atleti their goals. Any cursory look at Atletico's strengths would have told them to be a bit more careful.

But instead of getting too down on themselves the visitors hit back with a cracking goal of their own, a much more technical effort. A lovely one-touch move in the final third ended with centre-forward Angel laying the ball back and left-back Abraham curling an unstoppable first time shot into the top corner with his "bad" right foot. The goal, from one of the few players in their XI with first division experience, lifted the new guys' confidence, with the visitors even boasting 53 percent of possession in the first half.

They began the second half positively too, and regularly had Atletico pressed back into their own box. Atletico's discomfort was shown by three of their starting midfielders -- Gabi, Mario Suarez and Koke -- all picking up yellow cards for stopping promising attacks.

Ex-Barca B substitute Dani Nieto caused a lot of problems with jinking runs and Eibar were also dangerous from dead-balls; full-back Eneko Boveda almost glanced in an equaliser with 20 minutes left. Angel had an ever better chance for 2-2 with just a few minutes remaining after Godin's uncharacteristic slip let him free, but the former Levante forward prodded his shot just wide.

Eibar travelled back north after the game with nothing to show for their efforts but if they can learn from their mistakes and continue to play with this confidence, they have a great chance of again beating the odds and staying up this season.

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