November 1, 2017 8:20:50 pm
That stout defense has been shaky. That efficient offense has been faulty. That habitual poise has gone. Atletico Madrid has not been its old self lately, and that means it will likely have to wait at least another year before it can try again to win its first Champions League title.
Atletico’s hopes of another title run in the European competition have all but disappeared after back-to-back draws against Qarabag. The Spanish team was held to a 0-0 draw in Azerbaijan two weeks ago, and to a 1-1 home draw on Tuesday, leaving it needing to win its final two Group C matches and hope for setbacks by Chelsea and Roma.
It’s been one of Atletico’s worst moments under Diego Simeone since the Argentine took over as coach of the club in 2012.
Atletico has won only one of its last eight matches in all competitions, losing once and drawing six games either 0-0 or 1-1.
“We have to be self-critical and rely on each other for support,” Atletico defender Diego Godin said. “We have to stay united and keep working to get past this situation. We’ve always been solid as a group, in the good and bad moments, and that has to continue.”
That intensity that has characterized Simeone’s team has not produced the same victories that had helped Atletico thrive in European soccer recently.
Atletico had cruised through the group stage the last four seasons, each time advancing in first place. It made it to the Champions League final in 2014 and 2016, and was a semifinalist last season and a quarterfinalist in 2015.
Here’s a look why Atletico may miss on this season’s knockout stages:
Winless in four matches, Atletico has only three points in Group C. The team trails Chelsea by four points and leader Roma by five.
Atletico needs to beat Roma at home and Chelsea in England, and hope that one of them slips up against last-place Qarabag, which has only two points.
Chelsea plays in Azerbaijan on Nov. 22 and Roma hosts the newcomers on Dec. 5.
“What hurts the most is that we don’t depend on ourselves anymore,” Atletico captain Gabi Fernandez said.
Atletico has scored six goals in its last eight matches, but what has caused concern is the amount of opportunities it has squandered.
The team created many chances in both matches against Qarabag, especially after playing parts of the games with an extra man, but it was not capable of capitalizing on them.
There were a few one-on-one situations wasted in the first game, and some clear chances blown in the second because of poor finishing or good saves by the opposing goalkeeper.
In the two matches, Atletico had a total of 43 scoring attempts, with only 13 of them on target.
“We have to keep working and keep creating these scoring chances,” Simeone said. “We have to keep insisting.”
Simeone’s defense conceded six goals in the last eight games, but the team’s fragility on set pieces – one of the areas in which it used to thrive – has also caused concern.
Seven of the 10 goals conceded this season came on headers, including the one against Qarabag on Tuesday.
It also conceded headers in the 2-1 loss to Chelsea in the Champions League and the 1-1 draw against Barcelona in the Spanish league.
“These are details that we have to improve,” Godin said. “It’s what makes the difference between winning and losing.”
Atletico left its beloved Vicente Calderon Stadium to move into the modern Wanda Metropolitano this season, but the team has not been able to produce the same home-field toughness that it enjoyed at the old venue.
In six games at the 68,000-capacity Metropolitano, Atletico has two wins, one loss and three draws. The team hasn’t won in its last four matches at the stadium.
There were only about 55,000 fans for Tuesday’s match against Qarabag, which was roughly the capacity of the old Calderon.
Atletico’s only win in the last eight games came at Celta Vigo in the Spanish league last month.
After the disappointing last-minute home loss to Chelsea, the team drew at Leganes and against Barcelona in the league before being held at Qarabag.
Atletico was held by third-division club Elche to a 1-1 draw in the Copa del Rey, then by Villarreal to a 1-1 home draw in the league.
“We can’t lower our heads now,” Atletico forward Angel Correa said. “We have to keep working. We will fight until the end.”
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