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Atletico face a challenge in the New Year

Poor league form and sloppy performances mean Atletico are on the outside looking in at the top 4

Club Atletico de Madrid v UD Las Palmas - La Liga Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

It has been a difficult few months for Atleti. They were humiliated by rivals Real at the Vicente Calderon, battered by Villarreal at El Madrigal and have had to deal with losing key players to injuries. Jan Oblak is expected to miss the next four months with a shoulder injury, and it couldn’t have come at a worse time for los Rojiblancos.

His replacement, Miguel Angel Moya, is solid and even answered a few of his doubters with key saves in the weekend win over Las Palmas. However, the 32-year-old is unable to match Oblak’s commanding of his area and ability to collect crosses. It’s an integral part of how Atletico like to set up defensively, which makes the goalkeepers absence all the more concerning.

Even if Diego Simeone's side were flying high at the top of La Liga, Oblak’s injury would set the alarm bells ringing. That they are sitting in 6th, fighting for their Champions League lives, causes even more panic. In their last 8 league games, Atleti have only won 3. Losses to Sevilla, Real Sociedad, Madrid and Villarreal have raised questions as to how good this team really is. These contests were more or less considered 6 pointers at the time due to the similar positions in the league table, and after this poor run of form, Atletico now find themselves below each team in the standings. So, what’s gone wrong for a team that has grown so used to consistency and success these last few years?

Some believe it’s a sign that the Simeone Era is coming to an end. The Argentine demands a lot out of his players, and it could be that they are simply growing tired of his instructions. There was a hint of this recently, when Gabi was outspoken regarding the position in which Koke was asked to play. Simeone scolded him for his comments and it seemed as if the matter was dealt with. Inside the walls of the dressing room, tensions may still remain high.

Defeats are a part of football, but the manner in which a team recovers from them can tell a lot about their character. Following the embarrassing loss to Real in the final ever Madrid derby at the Vicente Calderon, the fans expected a backlash from Atletico. Over the last few years, these players have shown just how much losing hurts them, and have been able to bounce back from multiple negative moments. They managed to pick up a 3-0 win in Osasuna the week after, but if it wasn’t for an early missed penalty from their opponents, it could have been a different story.

Something is clearly missing from Atleti this year. The fight and passion we are so used to seeing, has rarely been on show. This is arguably the most talented squad Simeone has had at his disposal as the likes of Nico Gaitan, Kevin Gameiro and Tiago often warm the bench. It’s a new experience for the coach, trying to integrate a new style with the typical ‘Cholismo’ style the club has been accustomed to and the players have been trained in. Finding the right balance has been a challenge, perhaps more than those associated with the club had anticipated.

It’s going to be an interesting second half of the year for a side so used to challenging for top honours. The league title is out of reach as 9 points separate Atletico and league leaders, Real. Zinedine Zidane’s side have also played a game less. A top four finish has to be the aim now for Simeone and his players, but unless they improve their performances, even that will be an unattainable target.