Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone attends a press conference on the eve of the Uefa Champions League round of 16 second leg soccer match between Juventus and Atletico Madrid, in Turin, Italy, March 11, 2019. (ALESSANDRO DI MARCO / ANSA / AP)
MADRID — For quite a while now, Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone has been able to count on some of the best players in the world.
The only thing left for Atletico Madrid this season is the Spanish league, and it trails leader Barcelona by seven points with 11 matches left
Stars like Antoine Griezmann and Diego Godin have stayed with the club despite big offers from rivals, and Diego Costa and Alvaro Morata have been added.
The financial gap between Atletico and the top European teams has been reduced significantly in recent years, and the club has gradually grown into one of the continent's main forces, providing Simeone near-perfect conditions to do his job.
Long gone is the time Atletico was just a mid-level team trying to sporadically surprise the European powerhouses.
But one thing that hasn't changed as Atletico evolved was Simeone's vision of soccer and how it should be played. No matter the circumstances and no matter the players, Simeone's teams will always have a defensive-minded footprint. His teams will always rely first on defense before making any consideration about attacking.
It's a formula that has worked most of the time — that's how Atletico made it to two Champions League finals and won the Spanish league over Barcelona and Real Madrid.
But the team's embarrassing performance in a 3-0 loss to Juventus on Tuesday, a result that eliminated the club in the round of 16 of the Champions League, gives some fuel to those who think Atletico could be playing differently and succeeding more often than it is under Simeone's tactics and his current players.
With a 2-0 advantage from the first leg, it was expected for Atletico to fall back on defense in Turin. But the way it happened was demoralizing, with Simeone's team barely getting near Juventus' area and never having a realistic chance of withstanding the onslaught brought on by the hosts. Cristiano Ronaldo, who so often hurt Atletico while playing with Real Madrid, scored a hat trick to eliminate the Spanish club from the competition.
After reaching at least the quarterfinals in four straight seasons, Atletico was eliminated early for the second consecutive year. It didn't even make it past the group stage last season.
Atletico goalkeeper Jan Oblak fails to stop Juventus' Cristiano Ronaldo's second goal during the Champions League round of 16, 2nd leg, soccer match between Juventus and Atletico Madrid at the Allianz stadium in Turin, Italy, March 12, 2019. (ANTONIO CALANNI / AP)
Atletico had no shots on goal the entire game on Tuesday, with Alvaro Morata's first-half header over the crossbar being the closest the team came to scoring. An away goal by the Spanish club would have made it much harder for Juventus to overcome the first-leg deficit.
"I don't think it was lack of commitment or lack of character," Simeone said. "They were just better than us and we have to congratulate them. We have to put our heads down and try to understand how we can improve for the future."
The only thing left for Atletico this season is the Spanish league, and it trails leader Barcelona by seven points with 11 matches left. It was eliminated by Girona in the round of 16 of the Copa del Rey in January.
The 48-year-old Simeone, who last month had his contract extended until 2022, arrived in December 2011 and led Atletico to the Europa League title that same season.
Sticking to his defense-first formula, the Argentine eventually helped Atletico win two UEFA Super Cups, the Copa del Rey, the Spanish league, the Spanish Super Cup and another Europa League. The team lost in the Champions League final to Real Madrid in 2014 and 2016, and was eliminated by the same team in the 2017 semifinals.
The recent setbacks are not likely to change Simeone's style, and fans don't expect it to happen anytime soon, if ever.
"What I can tell Atletico fans is that we will keep working hard," Simeone said. "We have to pick ourselves up and try to keep improving."
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