Atlético Madrid entered Tuesday's Champions League fixture against FC Astana with a chance to solidify their position as Group C leaders. All they had to do was disembark after a long, LONG flight (7,000 kilometers!), overcome a plastic pitch and score one goal.
Unfortunately, they couldn't even do that.
Atlético could have wrapped up top spot as soon as next week with a win, but because they lacked ambition before the 75th minute, they have massively complicated what was once a pretty straightforward group. A 0-0 draw at Astana Arena, coupled with Benfica's 2-1 win over Galatasaray, means Atleti have fallen to second in the group and cannot qualify for the knockout stages yet. Los colchoneros will likely need to take six points from the final two fixtures - home to Galatasaray and away to Benfica - to enter the Round of 16 as group winners for the third year in a row.
And with the way they're firing the ball at the net right now, that seems unlikely.
Since the 2-0 win over Getafe on Sept. 22, Atlético have scored 11 goals in nine games. Four goals came in the reverse fixture against Astana - the same team that cleaned up, switched to a 4-4-2 and bedeviled Atleti with tight pressing in the final third on Tuesday. Inconsistency continues to litter the squad, and in particular the forward line which received such hype and rave reviews in the summer. Atleti's only goal in the past 230 minutes was scored by Tiago - and it was a screamer off a half-volley from outside the box.
Some of the struggles in front of goal are simply down to form. For example, Antoine Griezmann has failed to score in four, but those blips in form happen - even to the team's most important attacker. It's when Griezmann isn't adequately supported that things start to unravel, and some of the forward troubles are beginning to manifest themselves as legitimate concerns - particularly with Fernando Torres and Jackson Martínez.
Luciano Vietto, as we know, has been injured. Ángel Correa has been a substitute lately and just became a father. But Torres has failed to build off a strong start to the campaign, and another middling performance against Astana leaves the club legend's position in the current pecking order up for debate. Then there's the €35 million man, Jackson Martínez, who seemed to find his rhythm after goals at home against Astana and Valencia but has reverted to starting on the bench and running around in his own half.
Juggling and effectively utilizing all these talented (and, aside from Correa, proven) forwards is a process, and not an easy job for Diego Simeone. However, just as the players are responsible for improving and understanding Atlético's footballing philosophy, Simeone is responsible for figuring out which attackers are his best and which system is best for the team. Should Atleti play a 4-3-3? Should they run the more familiar 4-4-2? Should Cholo eschew Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco in the former setup and utilize him as a super sub? Or should he let him go crazy in a four-man midfield? Who starts up top with Griezmann, the only forward who has locked down a starting spot? How do you play a more possession-based style but launch Jackson forward as if he's waiting to finish off a counterattack?
The calendar has turned to November, and while there have been signs of improved play, these questions by and large have still not been satisfactorily answered. It's a long season, of course, and Cholo has built up more than enough credit with the club brass and supporters while he works out the kinks. However, the pressure is on the rise for an Atlético side still searching for a higher gear.