Even this early in the season, with 26 games still remaining, Atletico Madrid’s chances of winning La Liga have practically disappeared.
They are nine points behind leaders Real Madrid – effectively 10 when you consider teams level on points are separated by their head to head record rather than overall goal difference – so Atletico will need to win by four goals in the Bernabeu later in the season to get the edge on their neighbours.
Even so, that shouldn’t come into it because it’s highly unlikely that Atletico will be able to make up such a big margin on both Real AND Barcelona, who are now five points ahead of Diego Simeone’s men despite Saturday’s goalless draw with Malaga.
Nevertheless, Atletico’s season is by no means over because there is a strong sense, although they have never admitted it, that Simeone and his players have targeted a different competition as their chief priority: the Champions League.
Atleti, losing 0-3 at home. Simeone giving up after penalty. Come on, that’s very un-Atleti. Worrying for what they’re built upon.— David Cartlidge (@davidjaca) November 19, 2016
Last season’s penalty shoot-out defeat to Real hurt deeply – Simeone even referred to the aftermath as a period of “mourning” – and they are desperate to make amends this time around.
During Simeone’s five years in charge, Atletico have won La Liga, the Copa Del Rey, the Europa League and the Spanish Super Cup. The only trophy missing is the biggest one of all, and after two final defeats in three years there is a feeling they have decided enough is enough. This time, they will do everything possible to finally become European champions.
It’s no coincidence that Atletico’s best performance this season came in their group stage victory over Bayern Munich. It is the competition they want the most, and maintaining maximum intensity over the 13 games necessary to win it, is much easier than doing the same for 38 games in La Liga.
We can perhaps expect more slip-ups from Atletico in La Liga, but in the Champions League, watch out. Simeone and his men are angry, and mean business.
The prospect of making up nine points on a club and team of the stature of Real Madrid is a daunting prospect and Atletico’s form has been strangely inconsistent, but all is not lost. And there’s two distinct ways of looking at why Diego Simeone’s side can drag themselves back into the mix.
Simeone has assembled arguably his strongest and deepest squad in his five years at the club. If anything, at present, he has too many options and is still working out the best balance to his team.
Against Madrid, fielding both Antoine Griezmann and Fernando Torres proved counter-productive as there was zero communication or chemistry between the front two.
Simeone’s desire to play a more expansive brand of football also opened them up. He is trying to change the make-up and approach of his team and is still to hit on a winning formula.
Atleti have always been a safety-first type of side, but the Argentine, judging by his signings this summer, wants to see more adventure as they modernise and evolve. He clearly has the tools, it will just take a little more time.
Nicolas Gaitan and Kevin Gameiro need time to get acquainted with Simeone’s tactical demands. By the second-half of the season we should be in a better place to judge their impact. What is also on Atleti’s side is the teams they are chasing – Real, Barca and Sevilla have their faults.
Defensively, Sevilla are a mid-table side and it’s difficult to see them sustaining the process of winning while always conceding; three clean sheets in 12 is risky. Barca have dropped points to Malaga, Celta Vigo and Alaves: and when the MSN don’t function, they look short of ideas.
Madrid were excellent at the Vicente Calderon, and look the strongest all-round outfit but Zinedine Zidane, Saturday aside, has been found wanting tactically a few times – at Las Palmas, Eibar and Legia Warsaw; all teams they should be steamrollering – and we still don’t know how he’ll deal with managing as front-runner. More than enough, to keep Atletico interested.