You saw it coming. Admit it.
Atlético Madrid’s Eastern travels over the past three Champions League seasons have followed a particular pattern. The lengthy trips — done on about three days’ rest — end with Atlético playing in cold, cavernous stadiums and on poorly-manicured pitches. The results have logically followed: 0-0 in Astana, 1-0 in Rostov and 0-0 in Baku on Wednesday.
For the first time in the Diego Simeone Era, Atlético’s hopes of qualifying for the Champions League knockouts are in peril. Qarabag held los colchoneros to a goalless draw at Baku Olympic Stadium and even went for the win themselves — despite playing with 10 men for the final 15 minutes.
Simeone handed Kévin Gameiro his first start of the season — he partnered with the flu-stricken Antoine Griezmann for the first time this year. With Koke out, Cholo elected to start two natural wide players in Yannick Carrasco and Nicolás Gaitán, with Augusto Fernández and Thomas Partey available as cover off the bench. In defense, Šime Vrsaljko displaced Juanfran at right back and José Giménez re-entered the team to play with Diego Godín.
Qarabag goalkeeper Ibrahim Šehić was the first half hero, as he made two smart saves on Carrasco and Griezmann following slow starts from both teams. Atlético played positively in the first half, but the final ball was lacking and new entries (particularly Gameiro) were a step slow.
After a bright start to the second half, Atleti struggled to stay onside and handed initiative to their opponents. The Azerbaijani champions crafted dangerous chances against one of Europe’s top defenses — mostly through 20-year-old Mahir Madatov (three key passes) and central midfielder Richard Almeida (team-high 89 touches). And 15 minutes from time, Qarabag even had a penalty appeal — but referee Ruddy Buquet sent off Dino Ndlovu for simulation instead. Replay appeared to show Godín making some level of contact with the South African forward.
Now up a man and with time to spare, Simeone threw on Ángel Correa and Fernando Torres in search of a single goal. But it was not to be — substitute Tarik Elyounoussi nearly won the match for the hosts, who still got their first-ever point in Europe after an unmarked Griezmann mishit a potential winning goal from about 10 yards.
Atlético are now reliant on Chelsea securing a win and a draw (at least) against AS Roma over the next two matchdays. Further, Atleti must top Qarabag and Roma at the Wanda Metropolitano in matchday four and matchday five respectively; otherwise, it’s back to the Europa League for the first time since 2013.
Qarabag: Šehić; Medvedev (Rzezniczak, 70’), Hüseynov, Sadikov, Agolli; Qarayev; Pedro Henrique (Guerrier, 68’), Richard, Míchel (Elyounoussi, 84’), Madatov; Ndlovu (red card, 75’)
Atlético: Oblak; Vrsaljko, Giménez, Godín, Filipe Luís; Gabi, Saúl, Gaitán (Thomas, 64’), Carrasco (Correa, 71’); Gameiro (Torres, 71’), Griezmann.