Madrid club’s 126-million-euro forward was excluded from the starting lineup for the second time in three matches
VILLARREAL: Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone heaped praised on Joao Felix after the 21-year-old responded to being benched for Sunday’s match at Villarreal by scoring as a substitute to seal a badly-needed 2-0 win in La Liga.
Atletico’s 126-million-euro ($152 million) forward was excluded from the starting lineup for the second time in three matches and had been largely ineffective when he did start in Tuesday’s 1-0 defeat to Chelsea in the Champions League.
He was introduced at the start of the second half with his side a goal up against Villarreal and settled their nerves with an instinctive volley, scoring for the first time since late January.
“He scored a great goal and made a big impact and that’s what we need from him. I love it when players rebel and try to prove how strong they are. He’s very important to us,” Simeone said.
The Portuguese marked the goal by putting his finger to his lips although Simeone would not be drawn on whether his player was trying to send him a message over not starting the game. “We’ll have to ask him why he did that,” said the coach.
Defender Stefan Savic added: “Joao hadn’t scored for a very long time and I’m delighted for him because he’s a player with incredible talent. I don’t think he was angry with anyone, he knows what we need.”
Atletico went into the game feeling pressure from title rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid after their lead at the top was reduced to only two points following a run of one victory in their previous four league games.
They were also hurting from a 1-0 defeat to Chelsea in a Champions League last-16 first leg but responded with a typically dogged performance, opening the scoring from an Alfonso Pedraza own goal from a corner before Joao Felix’s clincher.
“Every time we play here it’s very difficult but we were more comfortable in the second half, we grew into the game and went looking for the victory which we wanted and needed,” Simeone said.
Next up for Atletico is a potential title showdown at home to Real Madrid, who are six points behind Simeone’s side but face Real Sociedad on Monday and would go top of the table with victory in both games.
“We go into the derby with a lot of hope, energy and a desire to keep on improving,” added the Argentine.