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Nothing Is Easy For Atlético Madrid Right Now

AC Milan's French defender Pierre Kalulu (2ndR) touches the ball with the hand in the penalty area during the UEFA Champions League Group B football match between AC Milan and Atletico Madrid on September 28, 2021 at the San Siro stadium in Milan.
Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty Images

Atlético Madrid may have won La Liga last season, but the hangover continues to rage in the Spanish capital. Looking at the league table, it would appear Diego Simeone’s men are doing just fine, currently sitting in fourth place just three points back of Real Madrid. That standing is a bit of a mirage, however, as Atlético has looked shaky all season and continued to in the Champions League on Tuesday. The score-line may say the team from Madrid won 2-1, but Atlético was made to look mostly dire by an AC Milan side making their return to home Champions League soccer, even after an early red card to Franck Kessié in the 29th minute.

The same problems that have plagued Atlético in La Liga this season popped up again at the San Siro. Simply put, the players can’t put the ball into the back of the net with any sort of consistency. That’s always been the most pressing issue for a Simeone-led club, of course, but the amount of wasted chances before Antoine Griezmann’s equalizer was staggering.

Atlético started dominating possession once Kessié came off with the second yellow, but it could not turn all of that time on the ball into anything resembling a real chance until the equalizer. Putting up 22 shots is a good marker for success on any given day, but Atlético only managed to get five actually on target, four of them coming in the final 15 minutes or so. Credit to Milan, who forced most of those shots out of dangerous positions; even Griezmann’s goal wasn’t a clear cut tap-in. He had to get just around Milan captain Alessio Romagnoli to hook it past Mike Maignan for his first tally back in an Atlético jersey.

The win came almost as late as possible, as Luis Suarez barely buried a 97th minute penalty just behind Maignan’s legs. The handball leading to the penalty was as unconvincing as Atlético’s attack on Tuesday, with the ball definitely hitting Pierre Kalulu’s arm, but seemingly after it hit Thomas Lemar’s. Since the referee called it a penalty in real time, there wasn’t enough evidence in the replay to overturn.

On the other end of the field, Atlético’s vaunted defense was mostly fine, but the club needed to be perfect against this particular Milan side and, specifically, against Rafael Leão. The 22-year-old Portuguese attacker made the Atlético backline extremely uncomfortable in the first half. His 20th minute goal came after Brahim Díaz successfully held on to the ball against two defenders in the box before dumping it off to Leão, whose low shot avoided everyone up to and including Jan Oblak:

Leão also did this, which wouldn’t have counted due to offside and which isn’t really an indictment on the defense. It was just very cool:

In the end, the Milan match turned out to be quite similar to most of Atlético’s league matches to date. Atlético has more talent than basically every team it’s played so far, and yet it can’t dominate opponents with any sort of regularity. That’s a problem that Simeone will have to fix in order to approximate last year’s successes.

Griezmann’s equalizer, as important as it was, serves as a perfect example of what ails Madrid’s second club: sure, it went in, but it was a half-chance, scored by a big signing who took nine matches—albeit, three for Barcelona—to score his first goal of the year. Atlético will never be one of the highest-flying, freeest-scoring teams in the world, but needing a questionable penalty to beat a 10-man team is not a position it should be in. There’s something rotten in the Spanish capital, and it will need to be fixed before disappointment catches up with the performances on the field.