Atletico players pose before the UEFA Champions League quarter final first leg football match Club Atletico de Madrid vs Leicester City at the Vicente Calderon stadium in Madrid on April 12, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / GERARD JULIEN
Finding themselves against the ropes, Atletico Madrid have to come out swinging and finally start landing punches to keep their Champions League dreams alive when Azerbaijani champions Qarabag visit the shiny new Wanda Metropolitano on Tuesday (1945GMT).
The move to the 68,000 capacity stadium, which will host next season’s Champions League final, was seen as confirmation of Atletico’s place among the European elite.
Inspired by coach Diego Simeone, Atletico have twice reached the final, as well as the semis and quarters in the Champions League over the past four seasons – only to fall to cross city rivals Real Madrid on every occasion.
On top of a 310 million euro ($360 million) outlay on their new home, Atletico made a huge economic effort to make their transition from the Vicente Calderon as smooth as possible despite a FIFA ban on registering new players.
Simeone and key figures such as Antoine Griezmann, Saul Niguez and Koke were handed lucrative new contracts.
Diego Costa also rejoined the club for a reported club record 55 million euros ($64.8 million) from Chelsea, but he and Atletico’s other major recruit Vitolo can’t feature until January.
However, the gamble that Costa and Vitolo would provide the perfect boost to Atletico’s Champions League campaign come the new year could backfire spectacularly as Simeone’s men have taken a paltry two points from their opening three Group C games.
Costa’s old club Chelsea lead the way on seven points, closely followed by Roma on five.
– Goal-shy Griezmann –
Atletico’s problem is painstakingly obvious, they can’t score goals.
Griezmann’s penalty in 2-1 home defeat to Chelsea last month is their only Champions League goal to date and they have managed just eight in their last eight La Liga games to fall eight points off the top.
“It’s the same thing as always,” Saul confessed after a 1-1 draw against third-tier Elche in the Copa del Rey.
“That lack of goals makes us anxious and we end up suffering.”
Top scorer for the past three seasons, Griezmann’s form has faltered with just three goals 11 matches.
However, Simeone insisted the Frenchman has got Atletico into a “bad habit” of solving the team’s attacking problems single-handedly for too long.
Luciano Vietto, Fernando Torres and Kevin Gameiro have all been handed their opportunity to partner Griezmann in attack and failed when presented chances in front of goal.
Some have also pointed the finger at Simeone’s defensive tactics as Atletico have been punished for sitting back after taking the lead against Chelsea, Barcelona and in drawing 1-1 against Villarreal on Saturday.
“Simeone isn’t the one missing the chances,” wrote former Atletico favourite Paulo Futre in sports daily Marca on Sunday in defence of the Argentine.
Griezmann, Yannick Carrasco and Torres all missed huge opportunities as Qarabag secured their first ever Champions League point in Baku two weeks ago.
“Now we have a final here at home,” said Atletico’s top scorer Angel Correa, his side’s top scorer with a meagre four goals this season.
“We need to be calm because the only thing we lack is luck, we are creating the chances.”
Atletico’s fate remains in their own hands, but they need to be a lot more clinical if Costa is to avoid the ignominy of making his European return in the new year in the Europa League as his old club progress to the Champions League last 16.