"Gabi and 10 Ghosts": Atletico face Euro crisis
By Richard Martin
MADRID (Reuters) - Atletico Madrid, despite twice coming within inches of Champions League glory in the last four years, have experienced an emphatic fall from grace this season and are on the brink of a humiliating exit from the group stage.
While in past years Diego Simeone's side out-muscled continental heavy weights such as Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Juventus, this campaign they have been unable to beat Azerbaijan's little-known Qarabag in two attempts.
On Tuesday the 55,000 fans packed into the shiny new Wanda Metropolitano stadium groaned with frustration as Atletico wasted chance after chance to grab a winning goal against the Azerbaijani side, even after the visitors had forward Pedro Henrique sent off with half an hour remaining.
The 1-1 draw in Madrid came two weeks after a goalless stalemate in Baku in which Atletico also had the advantage of an extra man in the second half. They are without a win in four games in Champions League Group C and their future in the competition is out of their own hands.
"It'll take more than a miracle", said the front cover of newspaper Marca, picturing a despondent Antoine Griezmann covering his face in his hands, while daily AS declared: "Atletico look towards the Europa League."
Atletico's wobbly form this season has not been limited to Europe's elite competition and they have only won one of their last eight games, conceding far more goals than they used to and appear to be suffering from anxiety when it comes to scoring.
”This team’s identity is based on conceding very few goals and scoring from the few chances we create. Now things have changed, we concede more goals and no matter how many chances we create we can’t seem to score," said captain Gabi.
The veteran midfielder was one of few players to escape from criticism after the miserable draw with Qarabag on Halloween night, which Marca described as "Gabi and 10 Ghosts".
Atletico's shaky backline is the most remarkable aspect of their decline. They had the strongest defensive record in four of the previous five seasons in La Liga and two years ago conceded fewer than one goal every two games, but now they are making the most elementary mistakes.
All nine of the goals they have conceded in the league and Champions League have come from crosses into the box, situations which they used to extinguish with ease, while defenders Diego Godin and Juanfran, 31 and 32 respectively, have badly underperformed.
A ban on registering new players due to the illegal transfer of minors has lead to a lack of competitive edge in the squad. So in attack there has been an over-reliance on Antoine Griezmann, who has only scored three goals all season.
The arrivals of Spain forwards Diego Costa and Vitolo in January cannot come soon enough.
Another problem for Atletico has been adapting to their new 68,000-capacity arena, where they have failed to win their last four games and which has yet to witness a Champions League win.
A pining for the decrepit but beloved old stadium was tangible after the draw with Qarabag, with Marca declaring: "This would not have happened at the Vicente Calderon."
(Reporting by Richard Martin Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)