Atletico Madrid’s underwhelming start to the season might have been overshadowed by the crisis enveloping city rival Real but there will be no place to hide against Borussia Dortmund on Tuesday.
A fortnight ago Dortmund dealt Diego Simeone’s side a 4-0 drubbing, Atletico’s heaviest defeat since the coach took charge 392 matches ago, while on Saturday it was held to a 1-1 draw by lowly Leganes, 18th in La Liga and with six defeats already to its name.
This was supposed to be Atletico’s year, primed for a title challenge by some impressive signings in the summer and eyeing a run at the Champions League, pumped by the prospect of a final inside its own Wanda Metropolitano in June.
Its failings against Dortmund and Leganes were more striking because it was caused by weaknesses in defence, its strong point under Simeone.
Dortmund pounced on Atletico to hit three in 10 minutes at the Signal Iduna Park, while on Saturday Leganes equalised thanks to lax marking at a free-kick.
Atletico is cast in Simeone’s image and have rarely been easy on the eye during his tenure. After scoring from a nine-pass move against Huesca last month, the coach said: “I liked it because it ended with a goal.”
Its backline in recent years has been the hardest to breach in Europe. “Nobody has the perfect way of playing,” Simeone said last week. “It is about a pursuit of winning.”
Weaker defending has placed greater demand on the attack but Antoine Griezmann’s partnership with Diego Costa, so effective last season, appears to have lost its spark.
Costa has one goal all season and is yet to get off the mark in La Liga. After turning 30 last month, it is tempting to wonder if the Spaniard’s best days are now behind him.
Simeone remains loyal to Costa as he shares his best qualities -- grit, determination, an unrelenting will to win -- with his striker. They also define Atletico at its best.
“He is an extraordinary player and very important to us,” Simeone said last month. “Not least because of what he contributes to the atmosphere in the dressing room.”
The rest of the team has not stepped in to fill the gap. Griezmann has five goals in 14, a decent return, but some way off the numbers needed.
Thomas Lemar, the club’s most exciting signing in the summer, has only two, and his unmistakeable talent has so far only been seen in fits and starts.
The overall sense is Atletico is under-delivering on expectations. Some have even suggested the message of Simeone, into his eighth year in charge, might have lost its punch. More likely, perhaps, is that it simply over-achieved before.
“The biggest plus of Simeone is he knows how to convince his players of his ideas,” former Barcelona midfielder Xavi Hernandez told Catalunya Radio on Saturday. “He believes it is the only way to compete with Barca and Real Madrid. And his players believe it as well.” Five wins from 11 games is hardly the form of champion but Atletico still has all to play for thanks to its stumbling rivals. It sits third in the table, only four points adrift of leader Barcelona and three ahead of Real.
In the Champions League, victory over Dortmund this week could seal qualification with two games to spare and put it level on points with the Bundesliga leader. Beating the German to top spot may be out of reach given its scintillating form at home and abroad but as Real Madrid.
Real’s success, though, particularly in Europe, has come from a knack of casting off what has gone before and peaking when it matters most. Atletico need to take a leaf out of their rival’s book.
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