Atlético finds poise after recast

Coach hopes victory over Villarreal marks new dawn as Madrid derby looms

Atlético Madrid will not be typecast. At the Vicente Calderón, anything from farce to epic is possible, and after a string of flawed performances, Saturday night's visit of the habitually efficient Villarreal had the makings of a disaster movie for the home team and its recently downcast coach Quique Sánchez Flores. But the rojiblancos pieced together one of their most convincing performances of the season, and a somewhat sparse crowd meandered home at midnight wondering if the terrible middle of the season might have been consigned to the cutting-room floor with an ending now in production that will echo the optimistic tone of the start.

After the 3-1 win, and, more importantly, the manner in which it was obtained, European qualification seems a likelihood once more for an Atlético that started the domestic season as a double-trophy holder on the continental stage. Villarreal remains 12 points ahead in fourth, the final berth for the elite Champions League, so it is hardly realistic to expect a step up from the hustle and bustle of the Europa League.

"We needed this. Let's hope it is a turning point," said Sánchez Flores

The night was full of positives for Atlético, however. There were fine goals and plenty of good movement shared between the front three. José Antonio Reyes opened the scoring with a left-footed screamer, and Kun Agüero and Diego Forlán made the points safe after some quick passing moves in the second half after Giuseppe Rossi's strike from a free kick had sent the two sides into the interval on level terms. Perhaps even better news for Sánchez Flores was the attitude demonstrated by the fact that his Atlético players were first to almost every divided ball.

Best of all is the fact that Atlético has now completely recycled its midfield and the three relative newcomers who started in the central positions - Tiago, Elías and Mario Súarez - are all assured passers, besides providing tigerish tackling to retrieve possession. The forwards enjoyed dozens of opportunities to launch attacks, and maybe (just maybe, bearing in mind this is Atlético we are dealing with) the Guns of Navarone in Agüero and Forlán that president Enrique Cerezo has referred to in the past, may now have the bullet loaders they need.

"We needed something like this," Sánchez Flores admitted after the game, before adding: "Let's hope it is a turning point." We will know in two weeks, when Real Madrid visits the Calderón.

Meanwhile, Valencia consolidated its advantage over Villarreal in the standings, coming back to win 1-2 at Mallorca thanks to two goals by Pablo Hernández. Valencia is now four points clear of its east-coast rival in third place and receives a morale boost ahead of Wednesday's difficult task of winning through to the Champions League quarterfinals at Schalke after tying 1-1 at home in the first leg.

For Barcelona, Seydou Keita scored the only goal against Zaragoza with the Liga leader having half an eye on Tuesday's clash with Arsenal, the English team bringing a 2-1 edge to Camp Nou.

Real Madrid showed no signs of missing the injured Cristiano Ronaldo, putting on of its best performances of the season in Sunday night's 1-3 win at Racing Santander late on Sunday night. Karim Benzema scored twice for Madrid and Emmanuel Adebayor walked in the other goal for the visitor after superb and unselfish play by Mesut Özil. Kennedy Bakircioglü grabbed one for Racing.

Other Liga results: Málaga 0-1 Osasuna; Sporting 2-0 Getafe; Levante 1-0 Espanyol; Hércules 1-2 Almería; Athletic 2-0 Sevilla.

Atlético players celebrate a goal in the 3-1 win over Villarreal.
Atlético players celebrate a goal in the 3-1 win over Villarreal.JUAN CARLOS HIDALGO (EFE)
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