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Crisis club of the week: Atletico Madrid

We’re knee-deep in churros and Mahou for this week’s Crisis Club, gorging our bodyweight in both until our waistbands expand to breaking point.

That’s right, it’s time to take a look at Atletico Madrid, those great sh*thouses of yesteryear, who are having a hard time putting themselves back together after their own decadent explosions in La Liga and the Champions League over the past week or so.

Like his hair, is Diego Simeone’s unique brand of anti-football starting to wear a little thin in Spain? Time to dig in, with another plate of croquetas while we’re at it please, Señor. God, I miss Spanish food.

It began two weeks ago during Atletico’s Champions League game against Bayer Leverkusen. With the scores level, Atleti were very generously awarded a penalty for handball on the very last kick of the game. The Wanda Metropolitano erupted and Simeone, who was halfway down the tunnel already resigned to a draw and an early group stage exit, came skulking back to watch the 98th-minute spot-kick.

Up stepped Yannick Carrasco to fire straight into Lukas Hradecky, Saul Niguez to head the rebound off the bar and Reinildo to hit that rebound against Carrasco and out of play.

Three days later, they played second-from-bottom Cadiz in La Liga and went a goal down inside 30 seconds. Cadiz made it two in the 81st minute and that looked like that until a Joao Felix-inspired comeback levelled things at 2-2 with just over a minute over normal time remaining. You can probably sense what’s coming here. A 98th-minute counterattack and fortuitous winner for the Andalucian minnows with the last kick, no, accidental thigh of the game.

Since then Atleti have lost to Porto, ruling them out of Europe altogether as Leverkusen snatched third place in the group and consequent Europa League spot, and drawn at home with relegation-battlers Espanyol. Who were a man down from the 28th minute. And also took the lead.

Once again, they only scored (and looked like scoring) through an individual moment of Joao Felix brilliance.

‘El Cholo’ is coming up to 11 years in charge of Atletico Madrid this December and has a contract until 2024 that makes him the best paid head coach in world football. Alongside Luis Aragones and Helenio Herrera he will go down as one of their greatest ever managers. You can’t overstate the job he has done with Atleti given that the club spent two seasons in the Segunda Division at the turn of the millennium and had finished seventh the season prior to his arrival.

Simeone finished fifth in his debut season but has cemented Atleti’s place in the top three ever since, along with two glorious title-winning seasons, two Champions League Finals, a Copa del Rey and two Europa League and UEFA Super Cup titles.

Now, however, that golden period is drifting away in the rear-view mirror as a bloated, ageing and ill-balanced squad are struggling to grind out results as they have done before. Simeone’s rancid own-brand football is fine when you’re winning, it’s a hard sell when you’re not.

Oh, and he still seems deeply suspicious of anyone who describes themselves as a full-back after Kieran Trippier clearly smashed in his little heart in two by returning to England.

We’re now over 350 games into his Atletico career and still don’t know which position Saul Niguez should play, while defensive midfielder turned auxiliary forward turned actual forward turned right wing-back turned central midfielder Marcos Llorente has now found a new home as a narrow right winger in a 4-4-2.

Axel Wistel, who started the season as a ball-playing centre-back in the middle of a back three, has now returned to central midfield. The whole thing is a mess, basically, as Simeone continues to flip between formation and personnel seemingly at random. The wall in his office is covered in you know what at this point and barely any of it has stuck.

In short, things have finally grown a bit too stale and the financial implications of missing out on the Champions League knockout stages mean that perhaps for the very first time, Simeone’s position is seriously under threat. Perhaps the decline has been so gradual we haven’t really noticed until now.

Not an easy thing to do, is it, sacking someone like Diego Simeone? Can’t imagine he’d take it particularly well. It won’t be a firm handshake and a see you around, thanks for our only trophies of the last quarter century. But that might be the only option here for Atleti, as they have the likes of Athletic Club, Real Betis, Real Sociedad and even Osasuna all threatening to jump into the top four at their expense.

The alternative is to trust in the man that would otherwise smash several large and valuable office ornaments and swear at you in such uniquely poetic Spanish filth that it will never be repeated, even by Gerard Pique to a referee.

Atleti have two upcoming games against mid-table Mallorca in the league and fifth-tier side Almazan in the Copa. Anything other than two convincing victories should mean curtains for Don Diego ahead of the World Cup.

I think it was the great T.S. Eliot who said: “This is the way the Cholo ends, Not with a bang but a whimper.”

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