MADRID (Reuters) - Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone recently compared his side’s no-frills style to pizza, but as his side prepare for a do-or-die Champions League match with Lokomotiv Moscow amid a dire run of results, the toppings taste bland and the crust feels stale.
The Spaniards must beat Lokomotiv at home on Wednesday to guarantee their place in the last 16 of Europe’s elite competition, or match Bayer Leverkusen’s result against Juventus, who have already qualified as Group D winners.
Overcoming the Russians sounds like a straightforward task, but Atletico have only one victory in their last eight games in all competitions and have failed to score in their last three.
“This is the most delicate moment of the Simeone era and the most important game,” said former Atletico player Kiko.
Friday’s goalless draw at Villarreal saw Atletico slip to seventh in La Liga, eight points behind leaders Barcelona who have a game in hand.
They are in their worst form since the sharply dressed Simeone took charge in December 2011 and transformed their fortunes, winning the 2014 La Liga title and taking them to two Champions League finals.
Those successes have felt like distant memories with each dour display this season, though, and the coach can no longer blame his side’s fortunes on a lack of financial might.
Fuelled by some high-profile exits, Atletico spent big in the close season, including a staggering 126 million euros (£108.24 million) on Portuguese youngster Joao Felix.
But they have the fifth worst attacking record in La Liga with 16 goals in 16 games, struggling to fill the void since Antoine Griezmann left for Barcelona.
Alvaro Morata is their main marksman with seven goals but has a habit of losing his composure on the big occasion, such as missing an open goal against Juventus and fluffing clear chances against Barca, both matches which Atletico lost 1-0.
Felix is their second-top scorer with three strikes and the 20-year-old was profligate against Villarreal, missing six attempts.
Atletico’s current plight has meant more scrutiny of their industrious style which Simeone has always worn as a badge of pride.
But the charismatic Argentine says he is not about to evolve.
“We shouldn’t confuse people, this is what we are. We like pizza, and if you like pizza, you don’t eat anything else,” he told Spanish radio programme El Larguero.
But should Atletico fall short on Wednesday and drop into the Europa League, calls for a more exotic diet may grow louder.
Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Christian Radnedge