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Angel Correa: Surplus to requirements in the summer, now Atletico’s biggest threat against Liverpool

February 17, 2020

ATLETICO Madrid's biggest chance of pulling off an unlikely upset against Liverpool in their Champions League last 16 tie is a player who they spent last summer trying to get off their books.

Almost drummed out of the Estadio Wanda Metropolitano last summer, Angel Correa has been Atletico's key attacker since the turn of year – either scoring or assisting six of their last eight La Liga goals up to and including the opener in Friday’s 2-2 La Liga draw at Valencia.

Correa hitting the most productive moment of his career has been especially useful for Diego Simeone’s side – with Alvaro Morata, Diego Costa and Joao Felix all missing injured through recent weeks. Although Morata should return to the XI for Tuesday’s game, and Costa might even be on the bench, many rojiblanco fans at the Wanda will have the unlikely hope that Correa could be their matchwinner.

Still just 24, Correa has been through an awful lot already. He joined Atletico from Argentine club San Lorenzo for €6 million in summer 2015, but then did not play any club football during the following season while recovering from a serious heart operation. Since then Correa has played over 200 times for Atletico, without it ever being clear what his best position was, or where he really fitted in Diego Simeone’s plans.

Often more effective when entering a game from the bench, he had a tendency to miss the simplest of chances, but every so often provide a moment of unorthodox brilliance to score when least expected. Each summer brought speculation that Correa was leaving, and it often seemed clear that Atletico would sell if the price was right. Among his reported suitors in 2017 were Liverpool, but instead it was Mo Salah who arrived at Anfield to take up position on the right side of the attack.

Last year Atletico’s directors seemed to make a big effort to push him out to Inter Milan, as part of a merry-go-round which would have seen Andre Silva leave San Siro for Valencia, and Los Che’s Rodrigo Moreno move to the Wanda. Correa agreed personal terms with Milan in July, but the complex deal was never completed, even with the involvement of Portuguese super-agent Jorge Mendes.

Correa missed most of pre-season as that all failed to play out, and then started just one of Atletico’s first 10 games of 2019/20. But bit by bit he began to get more playing time, helped by injuries to most of the team’s other forwards, and by the failure of €127 million wonder-kid Joao Felix to fit into Simeone’s side.

The 12 times capped Argentina international has now played 90 minutes in eight of Atletico’s last nine games – and been either scorer or supplier of nine of their last 11 goals in all competitions. His most recent strike came when he clinically took advantage of a mistake in the Granada defence to score the only goal of Atletico’s 1-0 La Liga win in their last Wanda game before Liverpool visit.

“Correa’s numbers speak for themselves, but more than his goal, I see his hard work,” Simeone said that night. “It is incredible, he can play on the right wing, up front… But apart from whether he plays better or worse, he never stops putting his heart into it, and we need that.”

That plays down just how important Correa's quality has been – especially as Atletico go through what has been statistically the worst goal-scoring season in the club's LaLiga history. Most impressively, his last five goals for Atletico have come with the game tied. This includes the winner in early January’s Spanish Supercopa semi-final against Barcelona – when he was slipped through by Morata and got enough power in his shot to get past blaugrana keeper Neto’s attempt to save.

That was the brightest moment of Atletico’s season so far, and showed that perhaps Correa is now ready to make really significant contributions when most needed. Playing regularly has allowed him to get back to full match fitness and confidence for the first time in a long time, bringing some not always previously evident composure in front of goal. Morata got through 20 minutes off the bench at Valencia on Friday, so should be ready to start alongside Correa on Tuesday against Liverpool. Diego Costa could be on the bench, as he has finally recovered from a back operation last November. Joao Felix won’t make it though – with a throat infection last week affecting his recovery from a muscle problem.

Correa’s adaptability and workrate mean he could be asked by Simeone to divide his time on Tuesday between supporting Morata up front, and helping right-back Santiago Arias deal with the twin threat of Sadio Mane and Andy Robertson down that flank. And also find time to pop up in unexpected areas to trouble Liverpool’s defence.

Atletico are well aware of the challenge they face against last year’s Champions League winners and this season’s runaway Premier League leaders. And that a player they tried to get rid of may well be their best chance of springing a surprise against Jurgen Klopp's side.