Balance has a funny way of restoring itself, given enough time and opportunity.
Thanos isn’t at work here, but the footballing powers that be certainly were on Thursday — when Atlético Madrid exited the Copa del Rey without a win for the first time since 2011.
Segunda B side Cultural Leonesa did the job, helped by the new single-elimination format. After Ángel Correa poked a João Félix through ball into the net, Atlético chose to sit back and wait out the clock — half an hour remained on it after Correa scored. But the plan went awry after a sequence which began with an errant Antonio Adán punch ended with Julen Castañeda’s stinging equalizer. Atlético’s defense had burrowed so deep that the left back was able to size up and lash his shot unchallenged.
Twenty-two-year-old backup goalkeeper Lucas Giffard stonewalled debutant Ivan Šaponjić and pulled off a double save to end normal time, setting the stage for the giant-killing. On 108 minutes, striker Sergio Benito (Spanish phrase alert) sentenced the match with a near-post finish from a well-executed counterattack. It’s easy to blame Adán on the winning goal, but Santiago Arias was caught in World War I-era no man’s land while Saúl had to cover for the wayward Manu Sánchez on the other flank.
Full time, 2-1. Diego Simeone’s Atlético had been knocked out of the Copa del Rey via a “Culturalazo.”
Gregorio Manzano was a man on the ropes as the 2011/12 season approached the halfway mark.
Things weren’t going well less than six months into the former Mallorca boss’s second stint in the Spanish capital. Radamel Falcao, Arda Turan and Miranda were among those who arrived over a summer of change, and los Colchoneros sailed through to the Europa League knockout stage as group winners. But a run of three wins from 12 league games saw the team concede 26 goals and sink to 10th in the table, with 19 points from 16 contests. To make things worse, Manzano also had fallen out with José Antonio Reyes — arguably the team’s most important player at that time — and the winger left for Sevilla as soon as the winter window opened.
Segunda B side Albacete had shocked Atlético in the opening Copa del Rey game on Dec. 8. Adrián Lopez had brought home an away goal after Alba had gone 2-0 up through set pieces, and Atleti had lost just once at home that season. Manzano was likely a goner anyway, but surely he could see the team through to the last 16 of the cup, right?
In the second leg, the coach played eight members of the team that would go on to win the league less than three years later. But Víctor Curto’s goal inside 20 seconds ended the tie, the “Albacetazo” was complete and Manzano received his marching orders the next day. Simeone took over less than 48 hours after that defeat.
In the eight years between these farcical results, Atlético have made two Champions League finals and won seven trophies in all. The club moved out of the Vicente Calderón and shattered its own transfer record four times. Atlético are in a different stratosphere as the new decade begins and are regarded as a European giant.
Simeone’s aging team puttered along last season and experienced two devastating cup eliminations. Still, it finished second in LaLiga and saw lots of new blood join the ranks over an expensive summer. The transition was always going to have peaks and valleys, highs and lows. Just over two weeks ago, Los Rojiblancos defeated Barcelona for the first time since 2016. Now, a third-division team has them out of the Copa — and deservedly so.
Atlético have won 10 of 26 games dating back to Sept. 14. Simeone’s men have scored more than two goals just three times this season, and they have just the league (where they are eight points off the pace) and the Champions League (where they will face holders Liverpool) for which to fight. Backing up a Brinks truck for Edinson Cavani is an inherently short-term move for a club that finally began to think longer-term last summer — and despite the player’s elite goalscoring record, it’s a desperate move.
Talk of Simeone’s cycle coming to a close has proven premature in the past. Even through the team’s persistent attacking issues and injury struggles, the results came at just a consistent enough clip to ensure a top-three finish and one good cup run. But said results have not come this season. Atleti’s football still borders on horrid away from home and Cholo’s tactical and strategic stubbornness has made his team easier to handle. A few years ago, a loss like the one suffered at Eibar last weekend would have sent Atleti on an absolute tear. Instead, it’s led to another loss, one even meeker and more bewildering than the last.
Symmetry this eerie cannot be ignored. There’s already on-field evidence to suggest Simeone’s vision is murkier with this squad, his screams from the dugout a bit softer. He has two-plus years left on his contract, yet the end feels closer than ever — not now, not next week, not any point before the season concludes. But remember Thursday night’s disaster in León if Simeone’s storybook coaching spell receives a downer ending later this year.