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Real eyeing return to UCL final

Five Aside
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Versatile Juanfran back at home on right side of Atletico Madrid midfield

Juanfran action for Atleti
The versatile Juanfran has found a home on the right side of Atletico Madrid's midfield.

After a fortnight's break, both Atletico Madrid and Diego Simeone appear refreshed and rejuvenated heading into the second half of the season.

There was none of the kind of laboured play that plagued their game before Christmas in their comfortable 2-0 win away to Las Palmas in the Copa del Rey on Tuesday. Instead, there was a spring in their step as they strolled to victory at a place that has not proven a happy hunting ground for many visiting sides this campaign.

With Los Rojiblancos flagging a bit towards the end of a draining 2016, they will be hoping that the chance to put their feet up and relax will be the catalyst for an even better 2017. After all, Champions League glory is the primary objective and they will need to be fresh and firing on all cylinders over the next few months to stand any chance of that. With their new stadium on the horizon and Simeone's tenure approaching its natural end over the next year and a half these are exciting times in the Spanish capital.

Koke, Antoine Griezmann and Yannick Carrasco are likely to be the headline grabbers, and while a transfer ban means there will be no incoming players -- and thus more than likely few, if any, outgoing -- this window, a little tactical tweak from Simeone might well be like having a new signing with a change of position for Juanfran.

Simeone's decision to deploy the 31-year-old on the right-hand side of midfield looks inspired. He is a comfortable, natural fit there and it might prove to be a masterstroke given it has been a bit of a problem position for Los Colchoneros since Arda Turan left for Barcelona.

With the Argentine coach often lining up with at least three players who naturally move to the center across the midfield four, there has been a distinct lack of width.

Koke and Saul Niguez have both done admirable jobs on the right over the past 18 months, however they will never make lung-busting, overlapping runs or be the classic "chalk on your boots" type desperate to hit the byline and put in pinpoint crosses for strikers to attack. And while Nicolas Gaitan was brought in to do a job there he has looked overawed thus far. Simeone admitted the other day that Carrasco "doesn't like playing on the right wing" and will likely be playing on the left all season, too.

An experimental move with Juanfran worked wonders for Diego Simeone and looks likely to stick.

With summer arrival Sime Vrsaljko looking increasingly comfortable at right-back, Simeone decided to experiment in the meaningless match against lowly Guijuelo. He deployed Juanfran ahead of the Croat down the right-hand side and it worked wonderfully. The two dovetailed nicely and combined well as Juanfran smashed in a wonderful effort from the edge of the box.

Of course, two internationals are always going to excel against that kind of opposition however they did enough to convince Simeone it was worth another go. It was a bold move and could have backfired, however they seamlessly continued to link up in the Canary Islands against a very good La Liga outfit in midweek. With another tricky trip to Eibar in the Basque Country on the horizon this weekend, they are both likely to retain their place. Should they put in another accomplished display this might well be the way forwards for Atleti, especially in games against sides likely to attack them and they need extra protection at the back.

What is perhaps most surprising is that it has taken this long for Simeone to come up with the idea. It is easy to forget that while Juanfran has made his name as the model of consistency at full-back with Atletico, he is in fact a winger by trade. He came through the Real Madrid academy as a tricky wide player and almost six years to the day after he was signed from Osasuna as a fleet-footed wide man, he is finally getting his chance to play there.

His years spent as part of Europe's tightest backline will only serve to help the side and there is no danger he will shirk his defensive duties and fail to provide cover to the impressive Vrsaljko. At the same time his attacking instincts remain. His final ball is often sublime, meaning he could well be the perfect Atletico Madrid's perfect foil to other teams moving forward this season.

Joseph Walker covers Atletico Madrid for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter: @Joe_in_espana.

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