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Atlético Madrid

Time to walk away? Simeone's Atletico fairytale seems set for an unhappy ending

8:00 AM EDT 11/3/17
Diego Simeone Atletico Madrid
The Rojiblancos, on the verge of Champions League elimination after a draw at home to Qarabag, are at their lowest ebb since the Argentine's arrival

Is the dream dying for Diego Simeone at Atletico Madrid? Failure to beat lowly Qarabag either away or at home has left the Rojiblancos on the brink of a shock exit in the Champions League and there are signs that this fairytale is slowly heading for an unhappy ending.

Atletico are unbeaten in La Liga this term. However, five draws in their 10 matches mean Simeone's side are already some way off the pace in fourth place and, in Europe, there now looks to be no way back for the Rojiblancos after three ties and loss in their first four fixtures.

Atletico 17/20 at Deportivo

Tuesday night's 1-1 draw at home to Azerbaijan side Qarabag was particularly disappointing. Atletico did not play well, but the feeling was that in times gone by, it was a match Simeone's side would have found a way to win.

Part of the problem is the new stadium. The Wanda Metropolitano is an impressive arena, yet it lacks the warmth and the hostility of the Vicente Calderon. Rival teams dreaded visiting Atleti's former home, but their new ground does not have that same aura - despite its increased capacity.

The transfer ban created an additional problem for Atletico and although both Diego Costa and Vitolo were signed, neither of the two can make their debuts until January - and the season could be all but over by then for Simeone's side.

"if things continue this way, Diego Costa's arrival won't help at all," Gabi said after Tuesday night's draw against Qarabag. And on the possibility of finishing third in the group (behind Roma and Chelsea) and playing in Europe's second-tier competition, he said: "Today, right now, I would say that the Europa League is a piece of sh*t."

That shows just how far Atletico have come. Europa League winners in 2010 (under Quique Sanchez Flores) and in Simeone's first season (in 2012), the Rojiblancos have set their sights on bigger things since and are still set on winning the Champions League after losing to rivals Real Madrid in the 2014 and 2016 finals.

Since returning to the Champions League in 2013-14, Atleti have lost out only to Madrid in Europe and it is the dream of winning Europe's premier club competition that has kept Simeone at the club after many thought he would move on to Serie A or the Premier League (having won the Europa League, UEFA Super Cup, Copa del Rey, La Liga and Spanish Supercopa between 2012 and 2014).

Next season's Champions League final will be played at the Wanda Metropolitano, but Atletico will need to improve significantly if they are to have any chance of reaching the showpiece occastion at their new stadium.

The side's famous pressing remains excellent, but many of their players are currently off form, including Antoine Griezmann, who could leave next summer anyway as his release clause drops down to an affordable €100 million.

Meanwhile, the team's once-miserly defence has conceded several times from corners this term and has allowed more shots from those set-pieces than any other team in La Liga. Not so long ago, Simeone's side were masters in dead-ball situations at both ends of the pitch. Not any more.

Part of the problem is that the likes of Diego Godin and Gabi, Juanfran and Filipe Luis are all getting older and losing some of their vitality. It is now time to rejuvenate and regenerate an ageing squad and it might be difficult to find the right players second time around. The transfer ban (for irregularities in the recruitment of youngsters) has also held up that process.

In La Liga, Valencia's renaissance and the presence of Sevilla means making the top four is not a foregone conclusion this time for Atletico and there is no guarantee the Rojiblancos will be eating at Europe's top table next season.

Simeone, meanwhile, has signed an extension until 2020, having previously cut his contract to leave in 2018.  And now he has perhaps the greatest challenge on his hands to avoid his remarkable reign from ending in disappointment after so many successes since his arrival in December 2011.

"Destiny is playing us a bad hand in front of goal," the 47-year-old said after the draw against Qarabag on Wednesday. "We will have to fight hard to beat it." And he added: "I'm completely responsible and we will have to win this battle with destiny."

Whatever happens, Simeone's destiny is to leave as an Atletico legend, but how his team reacts over the coming months may decide whether he stays on beyond the summer or sees his tenure suffer an anti-climactic finale at the end of this season.

Despite his love for the club and his burning desire to win the Champions League, the time might just have come for El Cholo to walk away.