?“Fate is playing tricks on us and we have to overcome it,” said Diego Simeone after his side were held for the second time in two weeks by Azerbaijani minnows Qarabag.
It left Atletico Madrid on the brink of Champions League elimination in the group stage, an inconceivable failure for a side that have in recent years established themselves as a feature of the latter stages.
This season feels different, though. Atletico have lacked their usual pugnacity, the intensity synonymous with Simeone’s teams since his arrival in 2011.
The Argentine coach’s assertion that this season’s struggles have been the result of “fate”, however, is questionable. There are number of factors that could be identified as potential reasons for their apparent regression; a severe lack of creativity, profligacy in front of goal, the disruption of a stadium move.
Then there’s the transfer ban, which has prevented Atletico strengthening a squad that is clearly in need of additions. That comes to an end in January, at which point the welcome signings of Diego Costa and Vitolo will be officially completed.
Before then, though, Simeone and his players have some hugely significant, possibly season-defining games to play, perhaps the most important of which comes next weekend.
The Madrid derby is always highly strung, always tense and anxiety-inducing. But this upcoming meeting has a feeling of great importance, for both clubs.
For Atletico, it represents an opportunity to turn a corner, to fully kick into gear after a stuttering, stunted start to the season. They have won just twice in six games at the impressive new Wanda Metropolitano and sit fourth in La Liga, eight points behind leaders Barcelona.
Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid, meanwhile, are level on points with Atletico after a dismal beginning to their title defence, and will be fully aware that they are in need of a victory.
Los Blancos have been predictably described as in a state of crisis following defeats against Real Betis and Girona, but the same cannot be said for Atletico. While Simeone will admit it has hardly been ideal – performances have been consistently underwhelming, at times insipid and tepid – the fact remains that they are still unbeaten in La Liga.
The visit of Real Madrid on Saturday is daunting for a side undoubtedly low on confidence, but it offers an opportunity for improvement, for a reemergence of the dogged, irrepressibly combative Simeone side lying suppressed under the surface.
There have only been glimpses from Atletico so far this campaign. Antoine Griezmann has underperformed, perhaps with his mind elsewhere or perhaps due to an undeniable lack of service.
They have scored 16 goals in 11 league outings, seven of which came within the first two games. And at times they have not convinced defensively; at least not like they used to.
Too often Atletico have seemed passive, almost as if they expect to see through a game and rely upon a moment of individual brilliance from Griezmann. Those moments have not arrived this season, and it has resulted in several disappointing draws.
For the first time in a very long time there has been doubt expressed over Simeone. It has not been widespread – most Atletico supporters still revere the demonstrative Argentine – but there have been questions asked as to whether the team are in need of a transition.
The weekend’s derby may provide some answers. If the hosts pull off a resolute, energetic display to beat their neighbours, it could be that they emerge impressively from what was simply an understandable dip in form. If they lose, they will be left to pick up the pieces of an increasingly fragmented season.
It doesn’t seem to be an inexorable decline – Simeone is far too skilled and experienced a coach to allow that – but it will certainly be concerning if Atletico are left with little chance of success in both La Liga and the Champions League before the end of November. Even if it is just to temporarily cover a plethora of issues, victory is vital against Real Madrid.