MADRID: Twice Champions League finalists in the past four seasons, Atletico Madrid are staring an embarrassing and financially damaging Champions League exit in the face unless they beat an in-form Roma on Wednesday.
Even victory over the Group C leaders and away to Chelsea in two weeks may not be enough to save Atletico unless Azerbaijani Champions League debutants Qarabag can also do them a favour by taking points off one of Chelsea or Roma in their final two games.
In Diego Simeone’s glorious reign as boss, only Real Madrid have previously been capable of eliminating Atletico from the Champions League. They have twice dumped out Barcelona and beat Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich en route to the 2016 final.
Here, AFP Sports looks at what has gone wrong for Simeone’s troops this season:
Simeone remains steadfast in his words of support for star forward Antoine Griezmann more than in his actions after substituting the French international in each of Atletico’s last two games.
Griezmann has angered some Atletico fans by publicly flirting with a move away before agreeing to stay and signing an improved contract when the club’s appeal against a transfer ban was rejected in June.
However, a run of no goals in his last eight games and just three all season has meant there has been little reconciliation with a set of supporters that demand commitment above all else.
Simeone insisted he was with Griezmann “to the death” as long as he “remains in his family” after another blank in Saturday’s 0-0 draw at home to bitter rivals Real.
Yet a divorce between player and club at the end of the season now seems inevitable, particularly with Atletico needing to balance the books should they crash out early in the Champions League.
Not so magic Wanda
Atletico’s European success was built at the fortress Vicente Calderon where they won 18, drew four and lost only one of 23 Champions League games under Simeone.
They are yet to experience the winning feeling in the Champions League at their new 68,000-capacity Wanda Metropolitano after two attempts: a late defeat to Chelsea and an even more damaging draw when Qarabag visited three weeks ago.
Indeed, after opening the 310 million-euro ($366 million) stadium with victories over Malaga and Sevilla, Atletico are winless in their last five at the Wanda Metropolitano as players and fans alike struggle to adapt to their remote new home, nearly 20 kilometres northeast of the Calderon.
Diego Costa cloud lingers
Griezmann’s lack of form has been exacerbated by a dearth of other goalscoring options as Atletico have scored just 12 times in their last 15 games and failed to score more than once in a game for two months.
A club record fee was splashed out in September to bring Diego Costa back to Atletico from Chelsea, but he can’t feature until January when the ban on registering new players is lifted.
In the meantime, Angel Correa, Kevin Gameiro and Fernando Torres have failed to justify a continued run in the team as Griezmann’s strike partner.
Lost their heads
So strong were Atletico in the air during their La Liga title-winning season in 2013/14 they were nicknamed “Atletico Aviation” in reference to a club that formed part of a merger to make what is now known as Atletico Madrid in the late 1930s.
This season, Atletico’s own set-piece threat has dried up, while seven of the 10 goals they have conceded have come from headers.
Atletico’s aerial defending has cost them points against Girona, Chelsea, Qarabag, Barcelona and Villarreal.
Draws don’t work
Despite the doom and gloom, Atletico have only lost one game in 17 in all competitions this season. The problem is 10 of those matches have ended in draws.
Not turning draws into wins has been particularly punishing in the Champions League as Atletico have dominated twice against Qarabag and away to Roma on matchday one for the reward of just three points.
Now they have no margin for error left, but Simeone is never comfortable in setting his side up to go gung ho.