By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
The moment of reckoning has arrived. Depleted by injuries to key players, deflated by back-to-back defeats this week and faced with a series of tough fixtures over the next month, Atletico Madrid's spectacular season is suddenly in danger of imploding.
Atletico thrashed Real Sociedad 4-0 last weekend to top La Liga for the first time in 18 years in what was a fitting tribute to their former player and coach Luis Aragones, who had passed away the day before. But defeat at Almeria on Saturday saw Diego Simeone's side drop down to third (albeit level on points with both Barcelona and Real Madrid), while the Argentine coach also saw Tiago added to the walking wounded as the midfielder suffered a wrist fracture.
David Villa, Filipe Luis, Mario Suarez and Thibaut Courtois are also sidelined as Atletico's sizeable squad suddenly seems thin - especially considering the games that lie in wait for the Rojiblancos.
Courtois played in Atletico's 3-0 derby defeat at Real Madrid last Wednesday in the sides' semi-final first leg in the Copa del Rey, but will miss the return on Tuesday with a back problem. Talismanic striker Diego Costa is also absent through suspension, but Atletico haven't given up hope of a historic turnaround.
"It wouldn't be the first time we've beaten Madrid 3-0," president Enrique Cerezo said on Monday. And he added, optimistically: "We've practised penalties."
For his part, Simeone said: "The tie has become difficult for us, but we have to make it interesting again. Nothing is impossible."
|ATLETICO MADRID - NEXT SIX GAMES
|Madrid (h)||Feb 11
|AC Milan (a)
|Osasuna (a)||Feb 23||Liga|
|Madrid (h)||Mar 2||Liga|
|AC Milan (h)||Mar 11||UCL|
Simeone has also gained fame in Spain for his 'one game at a time' mentality, which prohibits his players from looking beyond their forthcoming fixture. And their next one is the second Copa clash against Madrid. "I'll pick the team I consider best, just like I do in La Liga and the Champions League," the Argentine said. There is no question of resting players or thinking that the tie may be lost.
The cup match against Madrid is the first of six tough tests over the coming month: Atletico then host Valladolid in La Liga, before travelling to AC Milan in the last 16 of the Champions League, a tough trip to Osasuna in the Primera Division and another derby at home to Real four days after that, with the return clash with the Rossoneri to round off a month that may well define their season.
"I want my team to be uncomfortable [to play against] for all of our rivals," the 43-year-old added. "I would invite my players, the club and the fans not to look for excuses, but to work even harder."
Physically and mentally, however, this team is likely to be stretched to its limits over the coming weeks and with several players still sidelined, Simeone's side will be tested to the full over the next month.
The Rojiblancos will give their all on Tuesday. "We are Atletico and we never give in," Arda Turan said after the first-leg defeat at the Bernabeu.
But more than the semi-final second leg, the forthcoming fixtures against AC Milan should show just how far Atletico have come in Europe and whether they can cope without some of their key players. Likewise, the visit of Madrid on March 2 could go a long way to deciding the outcome of the Liga trophy, while the trip to Osasuna (where Real drew and Barca lost this term) will also represent another significant test of their title credentials.
So, win or lose on Tuesday, the moment of truth has now arrived for Atleti in 2013-14. It will be fascinating to see how they react.
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