Atletico Madrid knocked out of Europe: Diego Simeone under pressure after ‘darkest night’ of his reign
Diego Simeone sat motionless in the away dugout. His Atletico Madrid side were plumbing new depths at the Estádio do Dragão, but the most damning aspect was the sense of apathy in their typically charismatic head coach.
With 23 minutes remaining, it looked as though Antoine
Griezmann had given Atletico a lifeline with a well-taken goal to halve the deficit against Porto, but referee Daniele Orsato deemed there to have been a foul by Rodrigo De Paul on Galeno in the build-up.
It was an extremely harsh decision with both players reaching the ball at the same time, but the Italian official immediately blew up for an infringement. Tensions boiled over on the pitch as De Paul and Fabio Cardoso were both cautioned, but Simeone barely flinched on the sidelines.
There would be no berating of the fourth official Davide Massa. Just a broken figure in all black, downbeat and dressed at his side’s funeral.
The game was already up for El Cholo, for whom salvaging a Europa League spot might well still be viewed as a booby prize in these days of the Europa Conference League and endless football.
In order to salvage a Europa League spot, Atletico only had to match Bayer Leverkusen’s result against Club Brugge, but defeat meant they finish in bottom spot in Group B.
Simeone: You can always be worse
For Simeone, a serial winner as a player who lives and breathes the game, there was just a deep exhalation at another decision going against him.
A feeling of forever being wronged, of being with his back against the wall, has followed him into management but as he stared into the abyss on Tuesday night and headed down the tunnel, you wondered if Simeone has the stomach for another Atletico rebuild, and indeed if they have reached rock bottom.
“You can always be worse,” the Argentine said. “You have to worry about knowing where we are now and improve. The only way I know how to get out of situations like this is to stay together and get everyone involved, the club, the people, us – together.
“It was difficult for us, it is difficult for us but we have to accept it and see how we can improve in Europe. We have conceded goals in almost every game. We scored few and almost all the teams were better than us. We ended up in the place we deserved. Accept reality. From there on, another phase begins tomorrow.”
Griezmann: Now it’s time to shut our mouths
An own goal from Ivan Marcano deep into stoppage time was reward for an improved second-half display, but as so often has been the case for Atletico in Europe this term, Simeone’s side had given themselves too much to do courtesy of first-half strikes from Mehdi Taremi and Stephen Eustaquio.
Atletico lost all three away games in a single Champions League group stage for the first time in their history, while they are winless in their last five Champions League games – their longest run without a victory in the competition since December 2009.
Griezmann said after the defeat in Porto: “If you only win one match in the group stage you don’t deserve anything. Not the Champions League round of 16 nor the Europa League. Now it’s time to shut our mouths, work and fight.
“We are at his service to work, it is a pride for us to work for him and play for this club, but we have to show it on the field.
“We have nothing to say to the fans, just thank you for your work at home and away, to be able to hear them, they don’t deserve this.”
What the Spanish papers say…
Atletico Madrid are at the low point in Simeone’s tenure at the club. As recently as 2021, they were crowned La Liga champions, taking advantage of the ongoing uncertainty at Real Madrid and Barcelona but they have been in reverse ever since.
Having finished bottom of their Champions League group for the first time in their history, they will be without European football after Christmas for the first time in over a decade.
The Spanish papers unsurprisingly didn’t hold back. Marca ran the headline ‘the Darkest Days of Cholismo’ while Diario AS playfully leads with ‘Thursdays in the Sun’, alluding to there being no need for Atletico to play in the Europa League in the New Year.
Not since 2007 have Atleti not had any form of European football in the second half of a campaign.
Simeone remains bullish for now, highlighting the need for cool heads to handle the cruel nature of his side’s embarrassing exit alongside the small margins in defeat that were present during the defeat in Cadiz last Saturday.
“The emotional side comes before to everything else,” he told reporters. “You can have talent, a good game, be very good physically, but if you are not emotionally calm, with confidence, it limits you.
“You could see that in the last-minute penalty against Leverkusen. And in conceding after 27 seconds against Cadiz.
“We got ourselves to 2-2 with seven minutes to go, with two important chances and on the counter-attack in the 98th minute they made it 3-2.
“We start today and it happens again, just five minutes into the game. There are many tests to overcome now. Let’s see if we have many men within the group to overcome it.”
Who can Simeone rely on?
One of the most alarming declines has been the form of Joao Felix, whose two goals in the defeat at Cadiz were his only strikes in 16 appearances this term. The Portugal forward, bought for £109m, was substituted after an hour against Porto. There was no eye contact between manager and player as Felix departed the pitch.
The 22-year-old was seen chuntering on the touchline in the dying moments after another stray pass from a team-mate, no doubt feeling his side would have been better served with him still on the pitch.
Felix hasn’t started a La Liga match since September. The hope when he was signed in 2019 was that he would be the missing piece of the jigsaw up front to accompany a formidable defence in guiding Atletico to Champions League glory after reaching two finals in recent history.
But Atletico improved without him on the pitch in Porto, in much the same way their domestic form had improved prior to the defeat in Cadiz, a loss which came after four straight wins without Felix starting.
Simeone is the world’s highest-paid manager with a gross monthly salary of £2.8m, but the focus could well now fall on whether the 52-year-old is allowed to leave Atletico on his own terms.
It is the virtual guarantee of Champions League football that Simeone has regularly achieved during his 11 years to date which covers much of the cost of employing him, but if that prize goes, does hope of keeping Simeone on go with it?
Club president Enrique Cerezo previously backed him, saying: “He is a huge asset for us and it’s people from the outside that maybe don’t want him to continue.”
‘Simeone must get more out of resources’
European football expect Julien Laurens added to Sky Sports: “The talks right now is that Atletico are going to extend his deal. From an Atletico point of view, they don’t see it the way we do.
“I think the cycle ended a long time ago. I know they won the league two years ago when Luis Suarez gave them the perfect first half of a season, getting 50 points in their first 19 La Liga games that season. The second half of the season wasn’t so good but it was enough.
“They gave Manchester City a hard time in the Champions League last term but the writing has been on the wall for some time and this is a humiliation for them. In a group with Club Brugge, Porto and Bayer Leverkusen, for them to get just one win and to finish bottom is an embarrassment.
“The way that Simeone has used Felix and his resources in what is a really good squad has not been good enough. When you look at the teams that have knocked them out of this competition, it’s really embarrassing.”
With 18 months still remaining on his lucrative Atletico contract, Simeone has never been further away from fulfilling his dream of winning the Champions League.
He has been written off before, but with international jobs like to surface after the World Cup, now may just be the time for El Cholo to start a new chapter.
What’s next for Atletico?
Before the World Cup break, Atletico Madrid face Espanyol and Real Mallorca in La Liga.
They currently sit in third place, nine points adrift of leaders Real Madrid but looking over their shoulders at those chasing a Champions League spot. Atletico are just a point ahead of fifth-placed Real Sociedad.
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