Atlético Madrid are flying high atop La Liga and will face off against Chelsea in the Champions League Round of 16.
Atleti are three points clear of Real Madrid and with a game in-hand that could stretch their current advantage to six. They should be incredibly comfortable at dealing with a Chelsea side who, while defensively solid, aren’t exactly prolific.
However, even though Atleti are top, they aren’t quite the runaway locomotive they were two weeks ago. After dominating almost every opponent in Spain, losing just once to Real Madrid, it seemed like Atleti would cruise their way to the title, but lately the wheels have started to come off in a way that should have them a bit concerned for this Champions League tie.
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Are the wheels coming off?
Alético Madrid’s defensive prowess under Diego “Cholo” Simeone is legendary. While all the elite football world has moved towards attacking football, Simeone has remained steadfast in his belief that defence-first is the best way to build a team.
And even this season, when the focus has zeroed in on Simeone’s fabulous front-line, the engine of Atleti’s title charge has still been their ridiculously solid defence. From the beginning of the season up to December 31st, 2020, Atlético Madrid played 14 games in La Liga and kept a frankly absurd 10 clean sheets, conceding just five times in the remaining four games (with only Los Blancos scoring more than once).
However, since the turn of the year Atleti have kept just one clean sheet and conceded 11 goals in only nine games. That’s right, Cholo’s mighty defence has conceded more than a goal a game. And with the loss of their defensive solidity, so too have their results wavered.
In the last two weeks, Atleti have drawn with Celta Vigo and Levante and then lost to Levante as well. They’ve won just one of their last four games and seen their lead cut from a potential 13 points to a mere potential six.
Far from being a defensive juggernaut, Simeone’s Atleti now seem as vulnerable as any other side. And Thomas Tuchel should be very optimistic that his Chelsea side might actually be able to do some damage.
Worse still, even the attack isn’t as sharp as it has been all season. After scoring seven goals in four games between mid-January and the start of February, Luis Suárez has now gone three straight matches without a goal — the joint-longest barren run of of his Atleti career so far.
Yes, Atleti as a whole still have an impressive 16.42% shot conversion rate (Chelsea, under Tuchel, are as low as 9.41%) but their star striker’s goals drying up is a problem. And the thing is, there’s every chance he makes it four scoreless games in a row given his remarkably poor Champions League record.
Suárez hasn’t scored an away goal in Europe since September 2015 (seriously) and he’s not scored a European goal of any kind yet for Atleti. In fact he has just seven Champions League goals since the start of 2017/18 which is somehow less than megaflop Antoine Griezmann (10) for the same clubs over the same period.
All of this paints a bleak picture of a team losing form at precisely the wrong moment. Obviously on their day Atleti can beat anyone, as they showed last year by taking out defending champions Liverpool, but the form table is very worrying right now because the wheels appear to have completely flown off Simeone’s juggernaut and they could now be easy pickings for the buoyant Blues.