Atletico Madrid are accustomed to being among the Champions League heavyweights but after being dumped out of Europe’s elite competition on Tuesday they must now come to terms with playing in the far less glamorous Europa League.
Atletico’s motto over the last few years, during which there have been two Champions League final appearances and an unlikely Liga title triumph, has been “never stop believing” but they had a near impossible task to stay in the competition.
They had to win at Chelsea and hope AS Roma failed to beat Group C minnows Qarabag but Atletico could only manage a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge while the Italians won 1-0.
Those results condemned Diego Simeone’s side to the Europa League, Europe’s second-tier competition, which they certainly had not envisaged playing in when they opened their new 68,000-capacity Wanda Metropilitano stadium in September.
Atletico won the Europa League in 2010 and 2012 but have moved on to such greater heights that last month when captain Gabi was asked about returning to the competition he replied: “Right now I’d say the Europa League is a piece of crap”.
However, the competition brought Atletico’s first silverware under Simeone — they beat Athletic Bilbao 3-0 in the 2012 final — and the coach put a more positive spin on being involved.
“A new challenge has opened up for us, something new for us to battle for,” he told reporters after Tuesday’s match.
“Everything that is bad can become something good. We still have a very exciting season in front of us. “We still have the same responsibility — whenever we pull on an Atletico Madrid shirt we are motivated no matter what the competition is.”
Atletico came within seconds of Champions League glory in 2014 against Real Madrid but lost the final 4-1 after extra time while the 2016 showpiece was another heartbreaker as they went down to their bitter local rivals, this time on penalties. They reached the semi-finals last season, again losing to Real.
Atletico will have to wait at least another 18 months for a first Champions League triumph and their elimination has also cost them 6 million euros ($7.09 million) in prize money.
Even if they reach the Europa League final they will earn 20 million euros less than for a Champions League final appearance.
Their exit will also be hard to swallow for new signings Vitolo and Diego Costa, who will play their first games for the club in January when a ban on registering new players expires.
Costa’s former side Chelsea reached the last 16 as Group C runners-up, while Vitolo’s old employers Sevilla are on the verge of qualifying for the latter stages from Group E.
“It hurts us a lot to be knocked out of the Champions League, it was our biggest objective,” said goalkeeper Jan Oblak. “We’ve got so far in the competition before and now we’re going out of the group stage. We cannot be happy.”