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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

Griezmann out of form, a shaky defence and on brink of Champions League exit: Atletico Madrid face troubling times

Two finals, a semi-final and quarter-final in the past four seasons in Europe's premium club competition, Atletico Madrid are in serious danger of a group stage elimination.

Antoine Griezmann's poor start to the season has mirrored Atletico Madrid's disappointing run of form. Susana Vera / Reuters
Antoine Griezmann's poor start to the season has mirrored Atletico Madrid's disappointing run of form. Susana Vera / Reuters

Atletico Madrid need a "miracle" to make it beyond the Uefa Champions League group stage after failing to beat Azerbaijani debutants Qarabag for the second time in two weeks.

Since the arrival of manager Diego Simeone six years ago, Atletico have been transformed into a European powerhouse.

They won the Europa League in the Argentine's first year and reached two Champions League finals, a semi-final and a quarter-final in the past four seasons.

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Simeone, though, was left hoping that "destiny" will favour his side, who need to beat Roma and Chelsea in their final two Group C games and hope Qarabag can do them a favour by adding another draw to their impressive first appearance in the group phase.

"I believe you get what you deserve," Simeone said. "We have to try to beat Roma and then destiny will decide if we deserve to continue or are eliminated."

"More than a miracle needed," read the front page of Madrid sports daily Marca alongside a picture of striker Antoine Griezmann with his head in his hands.

For years Atletico have punched above their weight. According to Deloitte's Football Money League, they had only the 12th highest income of clubs across Europe in 2016 of €228.6 million (Dh977m).

Yet, in Uefa's coefficient to judge European performance over the past five years they sit third - behind only cross-city rivals and perennial scourge in the Champions League, Real Madrid, and German champions Bayern Munich.

Atletico now face the cost of failure having just moved into their new 68,000 capacity Wanda Metropolitano home at a cost of €310m.

Despite a Fifa ban on registering new players until January, Atletico still spent over €90m on Diego Costa's return to the club and Spain international Vitolo in recent months.

Meanwhile, they also spent big in the summer on new long-term contracts for Simeone and key players like Griezmann, Koke and Saul Niguez.

Diego Costa, right, is back at Atletico Madrid and is training, but will not be eligible for selection until January. Javier Soriano / AFP
Diego Costa, right, is back at Atletico Madrid and is training, but will not be eligible for selection until January. Javier Soriano / AFP

Griezmann did the honourable thing by staying when Atletico lost their appeal against the transfer ban in June, but is unlikely to do so again should his €100m buyout clause be met by a host of interested suitors, including Manchester United and Barcelona.

The Frenchman has scored just three times this season and, while his poor form has played its part, it is trying to muddle through until the new year without Costa that has proved Atletico's downfall.

They have taken just three points from their four Champions League games, but had big chances to win all of them.

Playing against 10 men of Qarabag for the final half-hour on Tuesday, Atletico had the most attempts on goal of any side in the Champions League this season (32) for the reward of a solitary goal.

"If between now and January we continue with this run of results, the arrival of Diego Costa won't mean a thing," Atletico captain Gabi said.

Once boasting one of the meanest defences in Europe, Atletico Madrid have become vulnerable from set pieces. Susana Vera / Reuters
Once boasting one of the meanest defences in Europe, Atletico Madrid have become vulnerable from set pieces. Susana Vera / Reuters

Three years after his departure, Costa was bought back to recreate the spine of Atletico's 2013/14 Primera Liga title-winning side, but the other core elements of that team are starting to crumble.

Once dominant from set-pieces, Atletico again conceded from a corner against Qarabag, as they had in drawing 1-1 at home to Villarreal at the weekend. Indeed, seven of the 10 goals they have conceded this season have come from headers.

"Our calling card was to not concede goals and score the few chances we had. That has turned completely around," Gabi said.

After a very public falling out with his former manager Antonio Conte, Costa now faces the ignominy of playing in the Europa League after Christmas as Chelsea progress.

Something that even Gabi, a Europa League winner in 2012, is struggling to stomach.

"Right now I would say the Europa League is rubbish, even though it has given me a lot."