Last night may have felt like the end of an era for Atletico Madrid, who find themselves returning to the Europa League after a four-year period in which they consistently reached the latter stages of the Champions League, but it certainly wasn’t for the want of trying.
Diego Simeone’s side needed their surprise nemeses Qarabag to pull off another upset against Roma while beating Chelsea at Stamford Bridge themselves and although they eventually fell short, the Spanish side did at least go a goal up through Saul Niguez before eventually succumbing to a 1-1 draw.
That opening strike won’t have been lost on the talent scouts at Stamford Bridge, or those working for Chelsea’s Premier League rivals Manchester United. Indeed, while Spanish publication Don Balon reported on the Blues’ interest back in October, last month saw The Sun link the Red Devils with a swoop for the 23-year-old midfielder.
Judging on his performance last night, it’s not hard to see why two of the Premier League’s biggest clubs are both courting the seven-cap Spaniard’s services. Niguez has developed an incredible knack of scoring important goals (last night’s marked his eighth already in the Champions League) but his all-round performance mirrored that vitality to his side’s cause.
In addition to having the most shots and creating the most chances of any Atletico player, Niguez showed a real doggedness in central midfield – completing four tackles, four interceptions and winning four aerial duels – while completing 85% of his chances.
Of course, reports linking Premier League clubs with Niguez are nothing new; at this point, he’s easily amongst the best central midfielders the continent has to offer. He’s also signed a contract with the Spanish capital outfit until 2026, making any transfer in the near future seem virtually implausible.
But if there’s a chance of changing Niguez’s mind, it’s surely now after seeing his side plummet out of Europe’s top competition. The talismanic display against Chelsea showed exactly why he belongs in it, and that may just convince the Blues or United to test their luck in January.