Atlético Madrid are a strange team to watch right now. And you can’t help but wonder if their two-legged Champions League victory over Liverpool has papered over the cracks of what has been really quite a disappointing season for them.
Sitting in sixth-place while the La Liga season was suspended, Diego Simeone knew full well that his side needed to hit the ground running with a victory. And before this weekend’s returning game at Athletic Club, they had earlier watched fifth-placed Getafe lose at Granada. Hours later, another contender for European football in Valencia were then held by Levante to a 1-1 draw.
The stage was set for them to move back into fourth place and firmly put themselves into the driver’s seat in the race to qualify for Europe’s premier club competition. And not for the first time, they fumbled the ball.
A 1-1 draw means that they remain stranded in the middle of the pack, unable to put distance between themselves and the other five teams all vying for the same goal. As unlikely as it is that ninth-placed Granada will finish in the top four, they remain just five points behind Los Rojiblancos. With ten games left to go, there’s no knowing what could happen.
Yes, it was their first game back from a three-month break, and rust was always going to influence their performance. But with their rivals slipping up on Friday, and with Real Sociedad also being held to a draw by Osasuna, it’s another weekend that feels wasted in trying to ensure they can play against Europe’s best next season.
If anything, the draw has summed up their disappointing league season. A team of their quality should not be drawing more of their games than winning – in fact, their draw on Sunday was their 13th during this La Liga campaign, which made club history – albeit you can’t imagine Simeone was thrilled about this new achievement.
The Liverpool result aside – Los Indios have only won three league games on the road. It’s one thing to lose 1-0 to Real Madrid. It’s another to fail to beat bottom side Espanyol, a team who had played just three nights earlier in the Europa League.
And while many have rightfully praised their defence for their ability to clamp down on the world’s best forwards, greater questions have to be asked concerning their misfiring attack. It’s pretty damning that Alvaro Morata and Diego Costa have combined for just eleven league goals – the same amount Arsenal flop Lucas Pérez has scored on his own for Alavés.
Sure, there’s still time for them to get back to winning ways. Only three of their remaining ten games come against the top half of the Spanish top-flight, so on paper you would think that they would have the goods to get through each hurdle to clinch a return to the Champions League. With there also being no European football games to worry about until August, it gives Simeone a chance to focus on the sole task of getting his team back to playing Europe’s best.
We didn’t take our chances. We have to suffer and accept the draw. We want to be in the Champions League and we need to get hold of the points.
– Koke after the draw with Athletic Club
But the longest this goes on for, the more difficult the challenge will be for the Madrid side to obtain that last spot. Playing every three to four days will stretch the current squad to their absolute limits, and this Atléti side don’t really possess a deep squad – an injury to their star players in Saúl Ñíguez, Koke or even José Giménez would leave them in severe trouble, due to the drop off in quality players on their bench.
A summer of change will certainly be lying in store for them. The already announced departure of long-time assistant coach German ‘Mono’ Burgos will allow for a fresh voice to help reinvigorate the current team. And with the rumoured pursuits for Alexandre Lacazette and Edinson Cavani, club officials are clearly looking to make a big splash in signing a big-name striker – which they would be completely correct to do so.
But until then, Los Rojiblancos have to take care of business. And that means qualifying for the Champions League next season. They’ve already produced a magical moment at Anfield – they just need to ensure they are able to keep doing so beyond this summer.