Atlético’s Marcos Llorente heads late leveller to dent Real Madrid’s title hopes

by 24britishtvFeb. 5, 2024, 1 a.m. 24
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The Madrid Trilogy closed with a twist in the final scene. Three derbies in three weeks on three different stages and in three competitions left Real lifting the Super Cup, Atlético prevailing in the Copa del Rey, and Real’s superiority reasserted in the league, the empire seemingly back in power. But then in the 93rd minute, Marcos Llorente, the son, grandson, nephew and great-nephew of men who made history in white, headed in the goal that gave their great rivals a dramatic late equaliser, raising his arms to the sky as he ran to the corner, striped shirts chasing after him.

Episodes I and II had required extra time to find a winner; Episode III had none and so it had been a battle but no one was beaten. The first two instalments had brought 14 goals, wild epic nights, 120 minutes of drama and tension, ending 4-2 and 5-3; the last of them had just two. And if the draw was enough to see Carlo Ancelotti’s side go two points clear at the top of the table, 10 ahead of Atlético, it was the 100 supporters of Diego Simeone’s side sitting high in a tiny corner of the north stand who were celebrating at the end.

Just when it had seemed done, Real’s hugely impressive midfield having imposed themselves, Memphis Depay flicked the ball on and there was Llorente to make it 1-1, Madrid’s early lead gone, the story turned on its head. It had looked like being about an unlikely hero: Brahim Díaz, the man who scored in Saudi Arabia by outrunning Jan Oblak to bend into an open net had opened the scoring here, getting what looked like being the winner, when he hadn’t expected to play at all. He only found out he was in the team minutes before kick-off.

Vinícius Jr had felt pain in his neck during the warm-up and was withdrawn. There were only four minutes until kick-off when the Bernabéu Tannoy announced that Joselu had taken the Brazilian’s place in the starting XI but when the team came out, it was actually Díaz who was there. By the time Vinícius had taken his seat on the bench, hopeful that the painkillers he had taken would allow him to play some part, his replacement had already taken aim on the Atlético goal as Madrid began on the front foot.

That Díaz effort, on three minutes, wasn’t even their first attempt on goal.

Jude Bellingham had slipped the ball through the legs of Mario Hermoso and dashed in to fire at goal a minute earlier and a couple of minutes after it, Eduardo Camavinga sliced over the bar. Atlético were deep inside their own area, overrun: at this stage, they had not had possession in Madrid’s half and their best player, Antoine Griezmann, had not had it all.

The first time he did, he produced a wonderful pass to play Álvaro Morata in, but Andriy Lunin made a sharp save with his right hand. The next time he did, he was taken out. Atlético, it appeared, had seen their way through that early pressure. And yet, no sooner had they settled than they had conceded. Two deflected passes from Díaz and then Lucas Vázquez – the first off Saúl, the second off Koke – accidentally became the perfect setup for Díaz, left one on one on the edge of the six-yard box, where he controlled and lifted the shot past Oblak.

A lovely inswinging cross from Rodrigo Riquelme almost saw Axel Witsel get a swift equaliser but Lunin was leaping behind him, body stretched into a star, and pushed it wide. From the corner, Stefan Savic’s glancing header somehow slipped past the far post from three yards.

This was becoming quite fun. Rodrygo shot wide after an exchange with Díaz and Vázquez, who then had the next chance. Allowed to get forward, the Atlético defence expecting him to pull the ball across, Vázquez eventually opted for a shot which hit the side-netting.

At the other end, Llorente delivered for Saúl to head just wide. And then Hermoso almost sneaked in at the far post, where Rodrigo de Paul’s superb ball was dropping, but Rodrygo had tracked him all the way. Atlético thought they had equalised at the start of the second half when Savic headed in from a Griezmann corner. Saúl though had been in front of the keeper on the line and in an offside position.

Atlético were seeking a way back but chances were few. The best, in fact, came at the other end, as the game stretched, Madrid’s midfield four imposing themselves.

Bellingham appealed for a penalty when he was barged over by Savic; a break led by Fede Valverde, bursting through the right, served up the opportunity for Rodrygo to end it but he shot straight at Oblak; and Díaz conjured up a moment of magic, feet flashing, ball disappearing as he stopped, drew Hermoso in, nutmegged him, then turned inside Witsel and bent his shot just wide.

He was withdrawn immediately after, the Bernabéu standing to deliver an ovation. This was his night, or so they thought. Instead he had to sit on the bench and watch as the Madrid Trilogy delivered one last twist.

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