Diego Simeone's Atlético Madrid have never given up on a competition. Until now.
Atlético, finally, have ceded La Liga. There can be no other conclusion after Monday evening's horror show at El Madrigal. I could go into detail on the 3-0 loss to Villarreal with more flowery prose, but a) I don't fancy my writing so much to describe just how much Koke playing on the left wing is killing me, and b) it would sound a lot like other league games from the past six weeks: disjointed, dispiriting, error-filled with a tinge of bad luck.
And there's 23 more matchdays of this to go. How exciting.
In the wake of the devastating loss at San Siro on May 28, there were two paths Atlético could take: come back angry and better than ever, or slowly crumble and fail to reach those heights again. For the first two months of the season, it looked as if Atleti were very much sprinting down path #1. In the past two months, los colchoneros have cratered, with good performances dwindling in number as freewheeling football steadily has been (re)replaced with flat football. Atleti have won seven of 15 games in La Liga and have fallen to sixth, five points adrift of third place Sevilla. Once on pace for nearly 90 goals, Atleti are now on pace to score around 70.
Even though performances like this show that Atlético no longer seem to care about finishing comfortably in the top three, they can't be ignored, swept aside, labelled irrelevant. Atleti are in its most difficult moment of the Simeone Era. The team isn't just losing, but losing convincingly; three of the four league losses have been decided by multiple goals. The intensity and passion that once were hallmarks of Cholismo rarely appear from week to week. Antoine Griezmann hasn't scored a league goal in nearly 700 minutes, Simeone's team selections are bordering on baffling (continued reliance on Gabi-Tiago, Nico Gaitán's exile to Botswana, no Yannick Carrasco in the XI) and key players are dropping like flies - Filipe Luís is out until the new year, and Jan Oblak and Tiago both left injured Monday after making goal-prefacing errors.
None of this is okay. However, not all is doom and gloom and blackness, no matter how quickly, loudly and sensationally we may want to brand it as such. Atlético's saving grace is the UEFA Champions League, which held a draw for its last 16 teams on Monday. Atleti drew Bayer Leverkusen for the second time in three seasons, and while the red and whites probably won't coast over the two legs, they have shown an inclination to play somewhat more open in the Champions League and will be heavily favored to go through to a quarterfinal for the fourth year in a row.
(Where, assuming the worst, they will draw Real Madrid. I'm only half-joking.)
It takes so much to win the Champions League. Prospective winners need a compact playing squad that can defend well under pressure and finish off counterattacks, not to mention a healthy dosage of luck. Putting all resources into winning it is risky - if you don't win it and you miss out on it the following season, you lose a boatload of revenue and exposure. But this is what Atlético have chosen to do; win the one trophy it has never won before Simeone's methods and tactics erode completely the red and white fabric. While los colchoneros have become predictable and easy to crack domestically, the same fate cannot befall the team in Europe, lest there be a third straight season without a major trophy.