The run that began at Stamford Bridge likely also ended there.
On April 30, 2014, Atletico Madrid dazzled at Chelsea’s stadium, upsetting the hosts 3-1 in the second leg of their Champions League semifinal after the first had ended scoreless. It was the first of Atletico’s two appearances in the final in three years — both lost to Real Madrid, once in extra time and once on penalties — interspersed by a quarterfinal place in 2015 and a semifinal push last season.
In all sorts of ways, Atletico competing for the Champions League trophy for four straight years was a soccer miracle. For decades, the once-great club had been just that, a team living in the past. Its governance was a mess, dominated by the deeply controversial Jesus Gil. Its finances were hopeless. And even when it managed to field a competent team, it was forever stuck behind Real and Barcelona.
Yet, somehow, it put together this era of dominance, even winning La Liga in 2014 — the first time since 1996. Manager Diego Simeone brought passion and a coherent bunker-and-counter style. The club managed to either hold onto its best talent or replace it adequately. It even found a way to build a new stadium and leave the decrepit Vicente Calderon behind.
On Tuesday, however, that run seemingly came to an end as Atletico crashed out of the Champions League in the group stage by failing to beat Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in a 1-1 tie. It didn’t matter anyway, because for Atletico to advance, Roma couldn’t win against lowly Qarabag. Roma prevailed, 1-0.
Simeone’s men, whose form has slipped considerably this season, had a deep hole to dig out of. The Rojiblancos had failed to win any of their first four games of their European campaign, scoring zero goals away from home until Tuesday. A 2-0 home win over Roma two weeks ago had brought hope, but the comeback ultimately fell short.
This might well be the end of an era for Atletico. While striker Diego Costa is returning from Chelsea in January, ending his purgatory in London, star forward Antoine Griezmann is expected to leave this summer. His form has been a mixed bag this year, after emerging as one of the world’s best at his position in recent years, but he’ll be very hard to replace nonetheless. And it’s been rumored for years that Simeone’s time at the club where he excelled as a midfielder is limited. Although he renewed his contract two months ago, that means little in soccer.
If Atletico’s players get the impression that the party is over, an exodus could follow. Their manager probably wouldn’t be far behind.
The club’s league campaign isn’t helping. While Atletico sits in its customary third place, Barca has a six-point lead and the Rojiblancos don’t look like they’ll put up a serious challenge to the juggernauts from Catalonia. Atletico has yet to lose in 14 games, but six of those were ties. And of its 23 goals, 10 came in just two games. In eight matches, Atleti scored once or not at all.
It had been 3 1/2 years since that battering at Stamford Bridge — when Atletico’s golden child, Fernando Torres, scored the only goal for Chelsea, during his unhappy spell there — a game that was perhaps the high-point of Simeone’s time with the club. Tuesday, Atletico also made an energetic start.
But Chelsea soon seized control of the game. Alvaro Morata had a series of chances, although all were denied by Atleti’s outstanding goalkeeper Jan Oblak. Davide Zappacosta’s pull to the near post was parried by Oblak as well. So too was Andreas Christensen’s header. Eden Hazard’s curler, concluding yet another inspired dribble, went just wide.
Still, Atletico came closest to a goal just after the half, when Felipe’s shot skipped off the post and was headed into the hands of Thibaut Courtois on the rebound. And in the 56th minute, Torres nodded a corner on for Saul Niguez to head home.
— Al Deporte (@Al_Deporte) December 5, 2017
The goal, however, came just moments after Roma had taken the lead against Qarabag, meaning Atleti never even really came close to a place in the knockout stages.
Regardless, Atletico resorted to absorbing pressure in hopes of holding onto the lead and praying for a favorable result in Rome. But in the 75th minute, a poorly cleared Chelsea corner eventually made its way to Hazard. He beat several defenders and drove in a low, hard cross, which was poked behind his own goalkeeper by Stefan Savic.
— Chris Olufunso-Oke (@olufunsoke) December 5, 2017
As it turns out, Chelsea never breached Oblak’s goal, as he denied Morata point-blank on the next play. Only one of his own defenders could.
But it wouldn’t have mattered to Atletico if Chelsea had scored more goals. It was out of the competition, and relegated to the Europa League, regardless of its own result. Because Roma held on for the win. It did matter to Chelsea, which failed to win the group — falling behind Roma — and therefore faces a greater chance of drawing a strong team in the round of 16, like Manchester City, Barcelona or Paris Saint-Germain.
That’s a problem Atletico no longer has to worry about. And there’s no telling when it will again.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.