If you’re like me, you probably own a PlayStation 4. And if you’re like me, your PS4 will occasionally disrupt your gaming/Netflix/HBO binge to inform you that a system software update is ready and must be installed RIGHT NOW. You sigh. You try to put it off. You’re in such a good rhythm that you have to reach a “good stopping point” before you accede to Sony’s demands. But when you finally install the damn update, you realize it wasn’t such a big deal.
Oddly enough, Diego Simeone and Atlético Madrid find themselves in a similar predicament. Years of stubbornness and poor recruitment culminated in Tuesday’s 1-1 home draw versus Qarabag, a humiliating result which will almost certainly see Atlético out of the Champions League at the group stage. It will be Atleti’s earliest European Cup exit since 2009 — and worse, it will be a big blow to the club’s prestige and a bigger blow to the club’s finances.
But where one door shuts, another opens. There are two reasons why an early Champions League exit — embarrassing as it may be, considering Atlético’s recent success in that competition — could prove beneficial. And one of those benefits could be realized as soon as this season.
Atlético stand an 86 percent chance of grabbing third place in Group C. If that happens Simeone’s aging, veteran core — Diego Godín (31), Juanfran (32), Filipe Luís (32), Fernando Torres (33) and Gabi (34) — will get one more shot at continental glory in the Europa League, where Atlético will almost certainly be one of the favorites (if not THE favorites) to win the competition. The additions of Diego Costa and Vitolo in January will strengthen Simeone’s side and give it a great shot at a third Europa League crown since 2010. The prize money is crummy, but winning Europe’s second-tier competition — given the players are arsed to try in it — would guarantee an instant return to the Champions League, thus easing the pressure in LaLiga, where Atlético are joint-third and unbeaten despite playing like crap most weeks.
And there will be no excuse for Atleti not to have a shiny new squad upon its return to the Champions League in 2018/19. There’s going to be a massive overhaul over the next two transfer windows. (Said overhaul would have begun last summer if not for that pesky transfer ban.) Simeone’s future likely remains secure, but big names are going to leave and there will be lots of money to spend. Antoine Griezmann won’t stick around after this (some argue he’s already checked out), and Jan Oblak will have the biggest teams on the continent chasing after him.
However, it’s the other rumblings that will determine how big a rebuild Atleti undergo. Torres reportedly wants to leave in two months. Yannick Carrasco’s attitude toward his knee injury is rubbing the club the wrong way. Juanfran’s contract expires in June; Godín, Filipe and Augusto Fernández are a year behind him. Kévin Gameiro, Nico Gaitán and Luciano Vietto likely will all be shown the exit in the next seven months, too.
Point is, there are lots of pieces available to move around the rojiblanco chessboard — it was true last season when questions about Atlético’s identity first started to creep in, and it’s even truer this season with the team in steep decline at both ends. A Champions League group stage exit one season after playing in a semifinal and two seasons after playing in a final is alarming, yet full of possibilities: it sets up the chance for a romantic adiós to the old and a warm #bienvenido to the new.