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Aug 25, 2014

Atleti's party stalled by stalemate

Rayo Vallecano's Javier Aquino, right, vies for the ball with Atletico Madrid's Cristian Ansaldi, left, during Monday's 0-0 draw.

After the ecstasy of downing neighbours Real Madrid in the Spanish Supercup, 72 hours later a trip to the southern Vallecas suburb of Madrid saw Atletico Madrid back down to earth with a bump. The footballing equivalent of a hangover.

It was not a disheartening defeat, nor was it a hugely morale-sapping draw, but at 0-0 it was a draw nonetheless.

It is often said the Spanish Liga is a "100 point league," a myth that was dismissed amongst the magic of last season (Atleti won it with 90), but this time around, with considerable investment undertaken by heavyweights Madrid and Barcelona, it might well be.

Rayo VallecanoRayo Vallecano
Atletico MadridAtletico Madrid
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To stand any chance of defending their title, Los Rojiblancos cannot afford to drop points and be playing catch-up, even now.

Rayo Vallecano are not a bad side, and they play brave, aesthetic football under Paco Jemez. Vallecas is never an easy stadium for teams to visit, with the home side on something of a roll, having completed the great escape last season.

But still, these are the kind of games that are often looked back on at the end of a season with regret: "if only we'd have nicked a win."

For Atleti, it was one of those days. Mario Mandzukic, who finished with aplomb against Real Madrid less than two minutes into his home debut, would not score if the match were still being played now.

Strikers have off days, and the Croatia international will want to forget his La Liga debut. After making himself an instant hero in front of home fans in the Supercup, he had two fantastic opportunities to give Atleti the lead that their first-half performance probably just about merited, but the former Bayern Munich man could not take advantage.

- Marcotti: Simeone needs to channel his emotions
- Corrigan: Diego Simeone given eight-match ban

While not solely to blame for the side not getting the three points, he will know more is expected of him. The positive thing is that he is getting into the right positions, connecting very well with new teammates early into his spell in the Spanish capital, and as his career at the top level has shown, he will score goals.

There were plenty of such off days last season, only for sheer will, desire and momentum to produce a goal from nowhere; Raul Garcia bundling in from a corner, Diego Godin popping up in the opposition's box, a Gabi pile-driver. At times it seemed as if Diego Simeone himself helped the ball into the net.

That momentum has been lost after a summer break.

The Vicente Calderon outfit missed the presence of their all-action manager on the sideline. The Argentine coach would have sat out this game -- for the somewhat bizarre, unforgivable (for a manager) accumulation of yellow cards rolling over from last season -- regardless of the eight-game suspension handed out to him today following his Supercup antics.

Simeone was a fiery character on the pitch and is equally as combustible off it, but he must now take a serious, long hard look at his future behaviour on the touchline.

While he might feel he has been hard done by -- and sarcastic comments in his post-match news conference intimate this is the case -- he has nobody to blame but himself. He is such a presence on the side that when he is not there, it seems as if something is not quite right.

Barcelona coach Luis Enrique believes defending champions Atletico Madrid are "the clear favourite" to win La Liga.

Assistant Mono Burgos is not quite the same kind of motivator as his countryman, and truth be told it looked at times as if the side needed their manager chewing their ear, telling them what to do.

After creating the clearest openings in the first half, it looked as if a heavy schedule of three intense games in six days caught up with the side in the second 45, as the home team took more control, if not necessarily causing the Colchoneros' defence too much trouble.

Rayo's chance to win the game came through Manucho, who had a header well kept out by Miguel Angel Moya, who is showing such good form that 16 million Euro arrival Jan Oblak has been forced to bide his time on the bench and wait for a first start.

The Atleti defence was its usual solid self. Godin and Joao Miranda seem to be a perfect match in the middle, while Juanfran is relentless up and down the right flank. An enormous positive that Simeone can take from the game was the impressive debut of Cristian Ansaldi at left back.

Coming into the XI for Guilherme Siqueira, who picked up an injury in the warm-up, the Argentine looked solid in defence and provided a consistent attacking threat down the left-hand side, providing the cross for one of Manzukic's spurned chances. Should Siqueira recover in time for Saturday's visit of new boys Eibar, Simeone has a real selection dilemma on his hands.

While all is by no means lost after the first game of the season, Simeone will want to see improvements from his side, and hopefully the chance for the team -- admittedly not all of last season's heroes -- to finally lift the La Liga trophy in front of the Calderon crowd will provide this new-look Atleti with the appetite to repeat the trick.

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