Tuesday evening’s 1-1 draw at Chelsea meant 2014 and 2016 finalists Atletico Madrid crashed out of this season’s Champions League in the group stages, and confirmed that Diego Simeone’s team would suffer following the off-pitch decisions made in recent years.
The damage had been done earlier in the group with Atletico drawing both games with Azerbaijani outsiders Qarabag. And before that, when the club were banned from making transfers in 2016. Meanwhile, the hierarchy pushed through a move to a new stadium but it does not yet feel like home.
When midfielder Saul Niguez headed Atletico in front just after half time at Stamford Bridge it appeared Simeone’s side might just pull off one of their trademark backs-to-the-wall victories. But hope of a miracle escape was extinguished almost at the same moment by Diego Perotti’s goal for Roma at home to Qarabag. That meant Stefan Savic’s own goal was academic. It was clear Simeone’s side were destined for the Europa League.
Goalkeeper Jan Oblak, Atletico’s best player at Stamford Bridge, told Gol TV the disappointment was caused by setbacks in each of their first four group games.
“This Champions League [campaign] was not decided today, but in previous games,” Oblak said. “In our first game we had many chances to win, the second we lost in the last minute, the third and fourth we should have won but didn’t.”
Simeone also pointed out his team had lost just one of their six group fixtures. One point from their first two home fixtures was a killer. Atletico were defeated just once in 23 European games under Simeone at the Vicente Calderon, where opponents as big as Barcelona and Bayern Munich had been intimidated in recent years.
Losing to Chelsea in the first Champions League game at the Wanda Metropolitano was a huge blow. Following that with a 1-1 draw at home to Qarabag was a disaster.
In the Stamford Bridge mixed zone on Wednesday night, Saul went back even further — to his miss of an open goal late in the goalless draw at Roma in this season’s Champions League opener.
“We must have some self-criticism,” Saul said. “It is our own fault as we were not up to the task. Everyone talks about the games against Qarabag, but it was also the other matches. Personally in the [opening] game against Roma I had a clear chance to score. We found it hard to score goals in the early games, and that has marked the way the whole group went. That miss has affected me as it could have changed everything.”
Saul was not the only guilty party. Atletico scored just two of their 76 shots at goal, while taking three points from their first four group games. Meanwhile, summer signing Diego Costa was sat in the stands watching on helpless.
Playing was not possible after the club’s hierarchy were caught breaking FIFA rules by signing young players from overseas, and then bungled their reaction so that [unlike neighbours Real Madrid] their year-long ban on registering new players was not reduced on appeal. That situation also brought all the uncertainty around Antoine Griezmann’s future at the club, something which has lingered on throughout the campaign.
Atletico chief executive Miguel Angel Gil Marin is also counting the cost of the early Champions League exit. Dropping to the Europa League is going to cost at least €30 million in TV and prize money, a blow to finances which were already tight due to the tricky financing of their stadium move.
Even before this, the plan was to move on two players in January to free up space for Costa and Vitolo on the wage bill. On Wednesday morning a very well-connected AS report warned that further exits may be needed to make up the hole in the budget for the season.
Last time Atletico went out of the Champions League group stages, back in 2009-10, they won that season’s Europa League. Simeone’s team have now been installed ahead of Arsenal and AC Milan as favourites to lift this year’s trophy — and they have also quietly moved into position as Barcelona’s most likely challengers in La Liga.
But for this Atletico team the Champions League remains the most important, the only competition they have entered and not won during Simeone’s time in charge.
This year’s attempt at their Holy Grail was hamstrung even before it begun.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan