Atlético Madrid’s disastrous UEFA Champions League campaign reached a new low in Belgium as Club Brugge ran out 2-0 winners at the Jan Breydel Stadium. The result sends Atleti bottom of Group B with three games to go.
Kamal Sowah opened the scoring nine minutes before half-time and ex-Barcelona forward Ferrán Jutglà added a second, 17 minutes after the break. Both came from defensive lapses, and Atlético lacked the cutting edge needed to respond at the opposite end of the field.
Antoine Griezmann, making a rare start, then missed a penalty 15 minutes from time to kill off any chances of a potential comeback from the side wearing their orange third kit for the first time.
Here are three things we learned from the game.
Maybe the Europa League wouldn’t be so bad after all...
Three games; one injury-time win and two convincing defeats. Atlético de Madrid’s Champions League campaign is not going according to plan, and Tuesday’s result now leaves Atlético with three matches to decide their fate.
The good news is that Porto and Bayer Leverkusen’s campaigns have been just as disastrous, and two of the three remaining matches come on home turf at the Estadio Cívitas Metropolitano.
However, Atlético’s home record may not prove to be a huge benefit, given that Porto were the first Champions League opponent to be beaten at Atleti’s stadium since October 2020. Picking up six points in the two home games coming up this month may prove the difference between a European campaign coming to an end before November or qualification for the knock-out stages.
Atlético Madrid are at the bottom of their Champions League group after three games pic.twitter.com/BXDll2Pn6h— B/R Football (@brfootball) October 4, 2022
But the truth is that, for this Atleti team, a Europa League campaign may not be the worst thing ever to happen.
Though it would be a financial disaster, dropping to the second-tier competition could have similarities to the 2017/18 campaign, when a squad clearly lacking in quality and depth was able to pick up European silverware and create memories for fans. It also gave more flexibility to focus on top four qualification in the league — Atlético finished second that year.
That’s the kind of lack of ambition the club’s board have often been accused of, and to a certain degree it makes sense. Those top-three finishes over the past decade have brought stability and a steady revenue stream.
But at the same time, it stunts long-term growth. What superstars would want a move to a team that accepts the Europa League?
With Diego Simeone looking more and more fed up with each passing game, there will be question marks over how long he will hang around. Bringing in a quality replacement and ensuring a smooth transition could depend upon the club’s reputation and ambition.
That’s why a result like Tuesday’s in Belgium matters so much more than whether Atleti simply make it to the traditional knock-out stage meeting with opponents like Juventus or Bayern Munich.
Nobody knows what’s happening with Antoine Griezmann
“Everything’s the same, life is the same, and we hope to see him play from the 60th minute,” Atleti president Enrique Cerezo said with a smirk when interviewed by journalists on Tuesday afternoon.
Hours later, Cholo Simeone selected Griezmann in his starting line-up.
It was only the Frenchman’s second start of the season, coming after he was in the XI to face Madrid in the derby at the Metropolitano. Nobody expected him to start this time around, but yet there he was.
And the criteria that earns him a start continues to baffle everyone, while the maths of any transfer deal seem to be even more bizarre.
The controversy is ongoing and a frustrated, tired Simeone is operating with one hand tied behind his back, but there remains a confounding dependence upon Griezmann. Turning to him for a match where a result was crucial, with a wealth of hungry options on the bench, was Simeone’s way of playing it safe.
Despite all that, the 31 year-old’s future remains unclear. Cerezo’s insistence that “everyone is always negotiating” suggests there is no done deal for the veteran. The original loan deal was sealed over a year ago and there remains no solution.
And with that said, maybe it isn’t such a bad thing after all. Griezmann has the experience and the age to make him one of the leaders of this team, one of those who should step up and turn against the tide. Instead, the pressure on Tuesday got to him.
Matheus Cunha, João Félix and Ángel Correa all came off the bench and made more of an impact than longtime France international Griezmann. Add in their youth and reduced wages, and you’d be hard-pushed to justify any kind of transfer fee to retain Griezmann.
What’s happened to Yannick Carrasco?
Among the worst performers on the night was a man returning to his home country of Belgium.
Carrasco was by far the team’s best player in 2021/22, but he has been a shadow of his former self in the opening months of the 2022/23 campaign.
He has completed 90 minutes just once this season and has only linked consecutive starts in a run of three games, including one (against Porto) where he was hauled off at half-time. Simeone is not letting him get up and running to build momentum, but he is yet to take advantage of his opportunities, either.
You’d have to go back 337 minutes to find the last time Carrasco completed a cross, though at least in Belgium he ended a three-game run (against Bayer Leverkusen, Real Madrid and Sevilla) of failing to even attempt a cross.
Carrasco’s dribbling, for years his top asset, has become less progressive, too. His per-90 average of 7.42 dribbles last season has plummeted to 5.5 per 90 this campaign. The 29 year-old’s passes into the penalty area have come from 2.88 down to 1.33 per 90.
While Carrasco’s xG is actually up, from 0.18 to 0.21 per 90, that slight increase largely comes off his shots from distance. His shots have risen from 1.57 to 2.67 per 90, dropping in xG per shot from 0.11 to 0.07.
Carrasco has far more competition than Renan Lodi provided last season. Without the danger and output from previous seasons, he provides little in the final third that Atlético can use. His confidence appears low, and time is running out for him to find form before the World Cup — Saúl Ñíguez is chomping at the bit to snap the left-wing-back spot out of his hands, and Reinildo Mandava happy to cover the left-back position.
If Simeone is to bring back the energy to Atlético de Madrid that is capable of making them great, much of that intensity has to be channelled through Carrasco’s pace and verticality. So far this season, those qualities have been sorely missing.