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.

Atletico Madrid head coach Diego Simeone insisted he loves "rebellious" players after praising Joao Felix's angry goal celebration.

Joao Felix – a club-record €126million signing in 2019 – came off the bench in the second half to seal a 2-0 win over Villarreal on Sunday as Atletico put their LaLiga title charge back on track.

The Portugal international looked unimpressed after scoring in the 69th minute – Joao Felix gesturing and shouting towards the Atletico bench – following Alfonso Pedraza's own goal.

Asked about the celebration, Simeone told reporters post-match:  "You'll have to ask him.

"He scored a great goal. He came on and did well in the second half... I love it when players rebel, when they look to be strong. We need him to be, he's an important player for us."

Simeone added: "I'll ask him in the next training session, and then I'll see if I tell you.

"I love it when players show pride. How long had it been since Joao scored? If players are rebellious, give them to me!"

Simeone, meanwhile, earned a place in Atletico's history books with Sunday's win over Villarreal.

The Argentine coach enjoyed his 308th victory in charge of the Spanish club – matching Luis Aragones as the Atletico head coach with the highest number of victories in all competitions.

Simeone's latest win came in his 512th match at the helm. Aragones, the only man to take charge of more games, reached 308 victories in 612 matches at a rate of 50.3 per cent.

"You know what this game is like," Simeone said when asked about the feat. "From tomorrow [Monday] we will start to live off what we do in the derby [against Real Madrid]. 

"It is an important victory, one does not stop to think about passing or not passing Luis, who is surely very happy about this moment of Atletico.

"We have a lot of things to improve and hopefully this week we can present a better version."

Atletico Madrid's LaLiga title charge is back on track after a 2-0 win over Villarreal at Estadio de la Ceramica on Sunday. 

Diego Simeone's side had picked up just five points from their previous four top-flight games to give rivals Real Madrid and Barcelona hope of reining them in at the summit. 

They secured a vital three points against Unai Emery's side, though, courtesy of Alfonso Pedraza's first-half own goal and substitute Joao Felix's second-half strike. 

The result meant Atleti restored their five-point advantage over second-place Barcelona, who have played a game more, while Real Madrid – who Los Rojiblancos face next weekend – are six points off the top in third.

Atleti were off the pace in the early stages, yet they forged ahead after 25 minutes in fortuitous circumstances. 

Stefan Savic's back-post header from Thomas Lemar's cross was kept out by Sergio Asenjo, but the ball rebounded into the net off the unlucky Pedraza – the goal ultimately given following a lengthy VAR review for a possible offside. 

A sprawling Jan Oblak denied Gerard Moreno soon after as Villarreal went in at the break behind despite having had nine shots to Atleti's three.

Asenjo superbly pawed over Luis Suarez's fierce strike shortly after the interval before getting down well to repel Angel Correa's deflected drive from distance.

Joao Felix wrapped up a vital triumph in the 69th minute, controlling the ball on his chest before arrowing a sumptuous half-volley into Asenjo's bottom-right corner from just inside the penalty area. 

Alex Baena struck the post from distance and forced Oblak into a wonderful save inside the final 10 minutes, but Atleti ultimately held on to take a significant stride towards a first title since the 2013-14 season.

 

 

Joao Felix is back in contention for Atletico Madrid after being sidelined with coronavirus, Diego Simeone has confirmed.

It was confirmed Portugal international Joao Felix tested positive for the virus on February 3, forcing him to miss two games for LaLiga's leaders.

The first was a 2-2 draw at home to Celta Vigo, who netted a late equaliser, before Atleti beat Granada 2-1 in Andalusia on Saturday to stay five points clear at the summit with two games in hand on second-placed Real Madrid.

Moussa Dembele, Thomas Lemar and Hector Herrera were all confirmed as having the virus in the five days after Joao Felix's results were returned, but the situation has had minimal impact on the team's on-field performances.

Up next is a trip to Levante on Wednesday, before hosting Paco Lopez's men at the weekend, and that is followed by the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie with Chelsea.

Simeone is unsure if Joao Felix will feature on Wednesday but was glad to have him back.

"He has not had many symptoms that left him unable to train at home, so he was working with the coaches since the fourth day [of his absence]," Simeone told reporters.

"He is eager and enthusiastic, he is healthy. It's great to be able to count on him tomorrow, but we will decide tomorrow what to do with him."

Attention soon turned to Atletico's other key attacker this term, Luis Suarez, who has recently been the subject of reports claiming the Uruguayan has a clause in his contract that would allow him to leave on a free transfer at the end of the season.

Simeone seemed unimpressed he was even asked the question.

"Normally I don't talk about personal contracts," Simeone said.

"I talk about how to attack, how to play, but I don't interfere in personal matters."

Thomas Lemar and Hector Herrera are the latest Atletico Madrid players to test positive for coronavirus.

Atletico confirmed last week that Joao Felix and new signing Moussa Dembele returned positive test results in consecutive days, ruling them out of Monday's LaLiga visit of Celta Vigo.

Now their midfield and attacking options have been further depleted, with Herrera and Lemar immediately beginning periods of isolation.

A club statement read: "Our players Hector Herrera and Thomas Lemar underwent antigen tests prior to the match against Celta Vigo according to the LaLiga protocol, giving a positive result for COVID-19, which was later confirmed with the relevant tests PCR.

"Both players remain isolated in their respective homes, strictly complying with the recommendations of the health authorities and LaLiga protocol."

Atletico did not provide any further information regarding their respective conditions.

Lemar and Herrera could miss as many as three games, with Atletico facing Celta, Granada and Levante in the next 10 days.

Joao Felix has tested positive for COVID-19, adding to Diego Simeone's problems ahead of Atletico Madrid's meeting with Celta Vigo.

Portugal international Joao Felix is self-isolating at home, as team-mates Mario Hermoso and Yannick Carrasco have been doing since Friday.

A brief Atletico statement read: "Joao Felix has tested positive for COVID-19. The striker is isolating at home, in compliance with the health authorities' guidelines and LaLiga protocols."

Simeone's men have a 10-point advantage at the top of LaLiga and welcome Celta to the Wanda Metropolitano on Monday. They then travel to Granada the following Saturday.

Hermoso and Carrasco are unlikely to return for the meeting with Celta, while Kieran Trippier will be absent due to suspension.

Joao Felix marked his return to the starting line-up against Valencia on January 24 by scoring his first goal in almost two months and setting up another, leading Atletico from a goal down to a 3-1 victory.

The 21-year-old has been left out of the first XI eight times in LaLiga this season and Atletico have won all those matches.

However, when Joao Felix starts they average two more shots (12.1 to 10.0) and their goals-per-game ratio improves from 1.9 to 2.3.

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