Thomas Partey’s 92nd-minute winner at Deportivo la Coruna at the weekend was more than just the three points for Atletico Madrid. It highlighted their continued struggles in 2017-18 and it begs the question whether Diego Simeone has taken the team as far as he can.
That may sound harsh on a manager that has won the La Liga title with the Rojiblancos, taken them to two Champions League finals and made them one of the most-feared club sides on the continent, but there’s simply no escaping the fact that Atleti are nowhere close to where they deserve to be at the moment.
Two draws against Champions League minnows Qarabag more than hinted at an enveloping crisis at the Wanda Metropolitano. It screamed it from the rooftops of Madrid.
The next two games in Atleti’s season now become pivotal. First up, Real Madrid, themselves not up to their own exacting standards, make their debut at their opponents wonderfully futuristic new stadium.
Level on points going into the game, a loss for the hosts could be catastrophic for their chances of a title tilt. If Barcelona were to win at Butarque, it would put Atleti a massive 11 points behind them if Los Blancos were finally able to get their own act together.
Four days later, Roma come to town and Cholo knows that only a win is good enough. With Chelsea expected to beat Qarabag, three points would keep the rojiblancos mathematically alive in the group. Anything less and it will be the Europa League at best and there’s no way the club would’ve budgeted for a group stage exit before the start of 2016/17.
By the end of November, the club could genuinely be looking at the Copa del Rey as their only hope of salvation in the form of silverware.
Injuries clearly have played a part in the stop-start nature of Atleti’s season but, frankly, every team has to deal with losses to key players at various stages of a season.
It won’t take much introspection to see that their big-name, big-game players aren’t performing when required. Antoine Griezmann was even taken off against Depor while the visitors were still hunting for their elusive winner.
Of the front men — Gameiro, Gaitan, Carrasco and Correa — only the latter has emerged with any credit at all this season, but Simeone’s problems extend as far as his backline too. For example, Juanfran has looked completely out of his depth for the most part. Thankfully, Diego Godin continues to be the glue that holds it all together, and with only one loss (to Chelsea with the last kick), a positive spin could still be put on Atleti’s predicament.
Leaving the Vicente Calderon, a real fortress for Cholo and his players, to decant to a ground that many still say feels like a neutral stadium, must have had an effect, but it doesn’t account for the lethargy and lack of desire we’ve seen in some games.
That, more than anything, will hurt Simeone, and is likely to leave him pondering if this season should be his last.
— The writer is an expert on Spanish football expert