Atlético Madrid on Wednesday night suffered its earliest Champions League elimination since 2010 after a 2-2 draw with Bayer Leverkusen. Diego Simeone’s side fought back twice from deficits to the visitors, but Yannick Carrasco’s 99th-minute penalty miss condemned Atlético to Europa League football at best in the new year.
“It’s a difficult moment, tough and unexpected,” Simeone told the media in the bowels of the Metropolitano late Wednesday. “Even though I think we deserved more, there are two places we can take this — (we can) act like the victims or continue to work. I choose to continue working.”
When asked whether this was the toughest night of his 11-year stint of Atlético manager — aside from two Champions League final losses to Real Madrid — Simeone simply responded “yes.”
Simeone: "It's a difficult moment. We didn't achieve one of the club's objectives"— Into the Calderón (@intothecalderon) October 26, 2022
Atlético have one group game remaining, next week in Portugal against already-qualified Porto. A draw or loss at the Dragão could bring the unthinkable to pass — an Atleti without any European football commitments in the second half of the season.
That last happened during the 2010/11 campaign.
“I thought there was a lot of effort (from our players), a lot of our fans were behind us, and when things don’t go well, it hurts,” Simeone said. “We have that responsibility. I understood that the effort of the footballers was what we wanted.”
The draw with Leverkusen on Wednesday night visibly affected Simeone and the Atlético players. Antoine Griezmann and Rodrigo de Paul — whose 50th-minute strike gave Atleti hope for a famous rally — stood in front of the Fondo Sur for several minutes after Leverkusen goalkeeper Lukáš Hrádecký saved what would have been Carrasco’s winning penalty (though one could argue it should have been retaken).
A tearful Saúl Ñíguez — whose headed rebound thumped off the crossbar — was the last player to leave the pitch. El Cholo waited along the touchline, in front of the tunnel, greeting each player as he came off.
De Paul and Griezmann in shock pic.twitter.com/sPuiT1jLGO— Into the Calderón (@intothecalderon) October 26, 2022
“In the first half the team was stuck, they couldn’t find ways through and (Leverkusen) scored on the two chances they had. They took advantage of that. In the second half (Atlético) was a dynamic team, intense, with speed, with timing, forcing the defense back, (playing) with the feeling that we were going to win,” Simeone said.
This is Atlético’s second Champions League group stage elimination under Simeone. The first occurred in December 2017, and Atleti responded by surging to the Europa League title the following May.
However, the trend in this team’s European results has been declining for some time.
The Rojiblancos have won 17 of their past 46 Champions League games, and just 6 of the past 24. Shockingly, Atlético have won only one of the past 10 Champions League fixtures held in the Metropolitano — and there is a chance Simeone’s men don’t even qualify for the Europa League this time by virtue of finishing third in Group B.
El Atlético de Simeone en sus 4 primeras temporadas en la Copa de Europa (48 partidos):— Pedro Martin (@pedritonumeros) October 26, 2022
El Atlético de Simeone en sus 6 últimas temporadas en la Copa de Europa (46 partidos):
Before this game, media and fans alike were caught by surprise when Simeone left out Stefan Savić — arguably the team’s best center-back — and inserted Mario Hermoso, who last played in a Sept. 18 loss to Real Madrid. The decision backfired, as Hermoso disappeared on Moussa Diaby’s ninth-minute goal before an eventual halftime substitution.
“I understood that with Mario, we could play the ball out quicker from the back,” Cholo explained. “Savic and (José) Giménez had been playing a lot, and we believed that we could improve our distribution out from the back. We understood with this possibility that we could play with Mario and Giménez to refresh our defense ... We played better in the second half because that’s how it goes.”
Atlético travel to Porto after hosting Cádiz in LaLiga this weekend. But whether the Colchoneros will feature in this season’s Europa League or bow out of continental football entirely, Simeone concluded his press conference with a pledge to someday bring the European Cup to the Metropolitano — the only trophy missing from Atleti’s cabinet.
“I have no doubt that the Champions League has cost me, seeing as we lost one final on penalties (in 2016) and another in the 93rd minute (in 2014). You can’t get closer than penalties, but I am very hard-headed and I will continue to insist, as long as I have the chance to be in this club, in getting something that the club is missing.”