Atletico fall short again in latest bid to upset the odds
Out of the Copa del Rey and adrift in La Liga, Atletico had pinned their hopes on Europe, where there was the added lure of a final at their own Wanda Metropolitano stadium.
MADRID - Atletico Madrid have suffered yet more Champions League heartache but this time the soul-searching could be deeper and longer-lasting.
Out of the Copa del Rey and adrift in La Liga, Atletico had pinned their hopes on Europe, where there was the added lure of a final at their own Wanda Metropolitano stadium in June.
Even Real Madrid, their conquerors every year between 2014 and 2017, had done them the favour of being knocked out.
Expectations dipped when they were drawn with Juventus and then soared, when their best performance of the season gave them a 2-0 first-leg lead.
But after five consecutive wins without one goal conceded, they let in three in 59 minutes, all to Cristiano Ronaldo, who has now been on the opposing team every time Atletico have lost a Champions League knock-out game in the last five years.
“They were stronger than us in terms of the aggression they showed to win the match,” coach Diego Simeone said.”
“We could not find a way to hurt them or the score the goal that we needed to win the tie,” said Diego Godin.
“We picked a bad day to f**k up”, said Antoine Griezmann.
When Simeone signed a new three-year contract in February, Atletico presented his extension like they might a new marquee signing, and with good reason.
Since taking charge in 2011, he has made them one of the most feared teams in Europe, and they remain the only club not named Real Madrid or Barcelona to have won La Liga in the last 15 years.
“We cannot hide from the reality of the numbers,” Simeone said after Atletico lost to Barca last season. “In 14 years, Real Madrid or Barca have been champions 13 times. It is clear it is not easy for us to make possible the impossible, it cannot happen every year.”
But that one remarkable triumph came five years ago, and the memories of fans are short. Some have begun to want more. Others have grown tired of the style of play, the lack of attacking flair.
Part of the frustration goes back to last summer, when players like Thomas Lemar and Rodrigo were bought, in theory, to open up a new, more creative approach.
Lemar has struggled and while Rodrigo has been a regular starter, little has changed in terms of strategy.
Simeone has argued, convincingly, that his tactics have served Atletico well and, correctly, pitches his side as financial minnows in comparison to their rivals.
Atletico’s accounts for last season published in February showed them boasting half the revenue of Barca and Real and spending half as much on wages.
Yet just as organisation and resilience have seen Atletico punch above their weight, it is also perhaps what makes them vulnerable when elite opponents, like Juventus, play on the front foot and deliver their best.
“They were superior in almost all areas of the game and we didn’t know how to react,” admitted Saul Niguez on Tuesday night.
“When the opponent is better, win more balls, show more intensity, we have to congratulate them,” said Koke. “But we also have to look at ourselves.”
The expectation is that Godin, Filipe Luis and Lucas Hernandez, all with precarious contract situations, will leave in the summer, while others like Saul, Nikola Kalinic and Juanfran could be let go.
Griezmann, the team’s driving force but whose claim to be among the very best was put into perspective by Ronaldo, may feel the only chance to win more trophies, and the Ballon d’Or, lies elsewhere. So too their superb goalkeeper Jan Oblak.
Departures do not have to prove decisive. Atletico’s ability to recycle and renew under Simeone in recent years has been a cornerstone of their success.
But the odds remain stacked against them, with the final step still hardest to make.