So commanding was Atletico Madrid’s lead at the top of La Liga, many had them down as champions-elect. In the minds of some, the red and white ribbons were being tied on the trophy for the first time since 2014, when Diego Simeone’s side last disrupted Barcelona and Real Madrid’s duopoly at the top of the Spanish game.
They might still do that. At the time of writing, Atleti remain at the top of the La Liga table. Their commanding lead which was not so long ago in double figures, however, is gone. By Thursday evening, the lead itself might also be gone - Barcelona can move top of the standings for the first time this season with a win over Granada.
Atleti have won just six of their last 14 league fixtures. This stuttering form has allowed the chasing pack to catch up with just three points now separating four teams (Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Sevilla) at the top of the table. What was once a procession might now result in a photo finish.
Simeone has struggled to explain what has happened to his team over the last few weeks and months. This is a side that won 15 out of 16 league games over the autumn and winter (the one defeat came away to Real Madrid). Atleti were strong in defence and highly efficient in attack. Simeone looked to have built his next great team.
Self-doubt, however, has led to more self-doubt. Atletico Madrid under Simeone used to be renowned for their mental strength, but there is now a softness to this particular group of players. They have developed a knack for losing the biggest games. Even when they don’t lose them, Atleti fail to strike the knockout blow - see the 1-1 draw against Real Madrid in March, when Karim Benzema equalised with just two minutes left.
This was meant to be the season Atletico Madrid proved they are now more than just underdogs. The ‘Cholismo’ spirit has sustained them throughout Simeone’s 10 years in charge, but the Argentine has more than once spoken about changing the culture of the club. He wants Atleti to be just as comfortable as frontrunners as they are underdogs.
On the basis of this season, though, Atletico Madrid still haven’t made this transition. They make mega-money transfers, like the €128m signing of Joao Felix, and play in a shimmering spaceship of a stadium like any self-respecting super-club. They were even one of the 12 founding members signed up to the ill-fated European Super League. Atleti, however, still haven’t found a way to truly lead the way.
Ironically, Simeone’s side might now find themselves in their comfort zone. Atletico Madrid will now be required to grind out results to be crowned Spanish champions, and this is what they do best. Simeone likes his players to suffer and they will have to suffer to make amends for their recent form.
However, if the opportunity slips through the fingers, Simeone will be forced to reflect on the darkest moment of his managerial career. Anything less than an Atleti title win, given the position of strength they held not so long ago, would raise questions over the Argentine’s ability to take the club further.
Injuries have been a factor in Atletico Madrid’s declining form. Joao Felix and Luis Suarez have spent some time on the sidelines recently, blunting the attacking options available to Simeone. Angel Correa and Marcos Llorente have stepped up to a certain extent, but neither are true goalscorers like Suarez is.
Even still, there has been a lethargy and listlessness about Atleti since early February, when an eight-game winning run ended. Even before injury struck, Suarez’s level dropped - the Uruguayan has only scored three goals in his last 12 appearances in all competitions having scored 11 in nine before that.
The trip to the Camp Nou to face Barcelona on May 8 could be a season-defining moment for Simeone and his players. A positive result there could put them back on the straight and narrow. A defeat, however, might effectively end their hopes of winning a first Spanish top flight title in seven years.
What happens over the next few weeks could determine the success or failure of Simeone’s second phase as Atleti boss. The first phase saw him establish himself as the most significant figure in the club’s modern history and exceed expectations. So far, though, Simeone has stalled in achieving the objectives of the second phase. A title collapse like the one unfolding would have to raise the question: Will there be a third phase?