It’s unlikely Atlético Madrid are going to be anything other than underdogs when assessing La Liga’s potential title contenders at the start of each season. They cannot match the finances and star power of Barcelona and Real Madrid, a fact that isn’t going to change any time soon.
But this could have been their year. After last season’s Europa League success, and following Antoine Griezmann’s decision to reject a move to Barcelona in favour of staying at the Wanda Metropolitano, Atleti appeared to be building.
And, as Real Madrid faced a difficult transition to life without Cristiano Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane, and with champions Barcelona training their focus on the Champions League, the door seemed to be creaking ajar for Atlético to realistically pursue a first title since the 2013/14 season.
With two months of the campaign remaining, though, Diego Simeone’s men have nothing left to fight for. They are second in La Liga, ten points adrift of Barcelona, and out of the Champions League at the quarter-final stage, thanks a capitulation against Juventus.
This is now a season that Los Colchoneros will look back on as a wasted opportunity: although Barcelona continue to set a high bar, they are set to retain their title with La Liga’s lowest winning points total (90) since Atleti last were champions of Spain.
In the Champions League, too, an opportunity was squandered. Neighbours Real Madrid had eliminated Atlético from four of the last five tournaments – twice in the final, plus one semi-final and once in the last eight – but Ajax had cleared them from the field. Taking a 2-0 lead into their own quarter-final second leg against Juventus, the semis beckoned, and with no Real to fear.
But a familiar foe in Ronaldo, who has scored more goals in Madrid derbies than any other player, struck a hat-trick. Atlético were punished for sitting too deep, trying to absorb too much pressure.
That defeat in itself stung, effectively ending what had begun as a promising season. But the manner of the reverse has raised existential questions about Atleti’s identity, and whether they are beginning to drift from a golden period of sustained overachievement under Simeone.
Against Juventus in the second leg, Atlético went beyond reverting to type: they regressed into a parody of what once made them great. Their calling card under Simeone has always been their tightly drilled defence, faultless organisation and unbreakable ability to frustrate opponents.
But they were was also always a goal threat themselves; they were a footballing manifestation of Muhammad Ali’s “rope-a-dope” performance against George Foreman in 1974’s Rumble in the Jungle: backed on to the ropes and covering up, but only to lure in and wear out their opponent, biding their time before striking precisely and at speed.
Here, though, at the Allianz Stadium in Turin, they lacked punch. Zero shots on target. Backed up against the ropes and knocked out.
Another defeat followed last weekend, losing 2-0 at the hand of Athletic Bilbao in La Liga. In 180 minutes of football, they had landed just two shots on target.
Stylistically, Atleti have never attacked with abandon under Simeone, the arch pragmatist, but at their best they had daring. Now, more than at any other point since his 2014 arrival from Real Sociedad, it feels as though if Griezmann is not firing, Atlético have little else to offer in an attacking sense.
This partly comes down to a failure to replicate their previous success in the transfer market. Where once they were able to sell high and buy reasonably priced replacements of equal or higher quality – success was sustained despite the sales of such talents as Radamel Falcão, Diego Costa and Arda Turan – the list of poor signings is piling up.
Griezmann is Atlético’s last unqualified transfer-market success in the striking department, with the club’s efforts to find a foil for the Frenchman bearing little fruit, from Mario Mandžukić to Kévin Gameiro, from Jackson Martínez to the nostalgic returns of Fernando Torres and Diego Costa.
There have been rumblings of late that Griezmann will once again consider his future this summer. The 28-year-old striker, goalless in his last six games, could be forgiven for ruing a missed opportunity after deciding to stay put last year, only to find himself more burdened than ever.
Attacking players of Griezmann‘s ilk will tolerate a restrained playing style so long as it brings success, as was the case with France at last summer’s World Cup, in which he scored just once from open play. But as title challenges fade, there is scant consolation for a player who is capable of so much more if only given the chance.
It feels as though Atlético and Simeone are approaching a fork in the road: do they stick with their tried-and-trusted method of conjuring gold from base metals, despite their diminishing returns? Or do they accept a change of approach is needed, and perhaps a new alchemist?