Stuttering Atletico seek old habits to upset Liverpool and the odds

Atletico Madrid players attend a training session in Majadahonda, Spain. AP
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Updated 17 February 2020

Stuttering Atletico seek old habits to upset Liverpool and the odds

  • The debate has inevitably turned to Simeone and whether he remains the man to better those high standards he himself has set

MADRID: Atletico Madrid might once have relished the challenge of resisting an opponent like Liverpool, but reaching the Champions League’s quarterfinals will require a performance not yet seen from them this season.

Diego Simeone’s side are no longer the same Atletico famed for their inch-perfect defense, relentless work ethic and a knack for grinding down even the most assured, attacking teams.

Instead, they are 12 points adrift of leaders Real Madrid in La Liga and last week sat 6th, a reflection of a deflating few months during which their old identity has blurred and their esteemed coach been questioned. When it was pointed out to Simeone on Friday that both of Valencia’s goals in their 2-2 draw at Mestalla had come from set-pieces, he said: “We don’t have the same characteristics now. Just like we attack differently, we also defend differently.”

Out of the title race before March and knocked out of the Copa del Rey before the last 16, many in Spain believe Atletico’s season is in tatters, with the assumption they will soon depart the Champions League too.

The debate has inevitably turned to Simeone and whether he remains the man to better those high standards he himself has set.

“In the eight years I’ve been here, every year it’s been said the squad isn’t with me,” Simeone said in December. “There is always a rocky patch but I have always had patience, energy and confidence in what I believe. We can win or lose but I am convinced of what I want because I know my players.”

To prove the doubters wrong against Liverpool, Simeone will have to extract a throwback display from a new group of players and against the finest team in Europe, both in terms of current form and the last name written on the cup.

Atletico might take heart from their record at home, where they must surely avoid defeat on Tuesday to keep the tie alive ahead of a daunting second leg at Anfield.

They have lost only once in 21 Champions League games in front of their own fans, even if Liverpool will hardly feel uncomfortable at the Wanda Metropolitano, where they were celebrating last June after lifting their sixth European Cup. And a sense of inferiority might also appeal to Simeone, whose Atletico have often appeared to excel when the chance of victory seemed lowest. In recent years, they have prevailed against Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus and Real Madrid.

Yet all logic points to a Liverpool victory, particularly given Atletico are likely to be without Diego Costa and Joao Felix, the 120 million Portugese forward who has so far struggled to live up to the hype.

Alvaro Morata’s fitness is also in doubt after he played only 24 minutes off the bench against Valencia.

When Atletico thrashed Real Madrid 7-3 in pre-season, many wondered if they could repeat their remarkable title-winning feat of 2014, reinvigorated by new signings and fresh belief.

But a promising start quickly fizzled and Simeone raised eyebrows in December by insisting this was always a “transition season” for his team, despite close to 250 million euros spent last summer.

Those arrivals had big shoes to fill, after Antoine Griezmann left for Barcelona and the drain of leadership continued with the departures of Diego Godin, Lucas Hernandez, Filipe Luis and Juanfran.

Simeone said transition did not mean stagnation. “Anyone who believes the word transition means sunbathing and waiting for the flowers to come out doesn’t know me,” he said.

Yet while he may never be under pressure at the club he has transformed since his appointment in 2011, Simeone is in need of a boost as he attempts to put Atletico back among the elite.

Liverpool may remind them how far they have to go.


NBA star LeBron James opts out of wearing social justice message on Lakers jersey

Updated 12 July 2020

NBA star LeBron James opts out of wearing social justice message on Lakers jersey

  • ‘It is just something that didn’t seriously resonate with my mission, with my goal’
  • But Lakers star still working behind the scenes to improve the lives of others

LOS ANGELES: NBA superstar LeBron James said Saturday he would opt out of wearing a social justice message on the back of his jersey because it doesn’t “resonate with his mission.”
James, who has often spoken out against racism and police brutality in America, is passing on the NBA’s plan to help bring attention to racial inequality by having players wear messages like “I Can’t Breathe” instead of their family names.
“I didn’t go with a name on the back of my jersey,” the Los Angeles Lakers forward James said Saturday. “It was no disrespect to the list that was handed down to all the players.”
“I commend anyone that decides to put something on the back of their jersey. It is just something that didn’t seriously resonate with my mission, with my goal.”
James says he wishes he had had some input into the jersey change.
“I would have loved to have a say on what would have went on the back of the jersey. I had a couple of things in mind, but I wasn’t part of that process which is OK.”
“I don’t need to have something on the back of the jersey for people to understand my mission and what I’m about and what I am here to do.”
The vast majority of NBA players have decided to pick a social justice message when play resumes in Orlando, Florida.
James is one of just about 17 players out of 285 so far who have opted to continue using their family names on the back of their uniforms.
The list of suggested messages, agreed on by the players union and NBA owners and then made available to players, includes “I Can’t Breathe,” which is what George Floyd said more than 20 times before he died with a white police officer kneeling on his neck.
Other messages include: Black Lives Matter; Say Their Names; Vote; Justice; Peace; Equality; Freedom; Enough; Power to the People; Justice Now; Say Her Name; Sí Se Puede (Yes We Can); Liberation; See Us; Hear Us; Respect Us; Love Us; Listen; Listen to Us; Stand Up; Ally; Anti-Racist; I Am A Man; Speak Up; How Many More; Group Economics; Education Reform; and Mentor.
James said even though he isn’t taking part in the jersey messages, he is still working behind the scenes to improve the lives of others, especially people in the Black community.
“Being able to use my platform, use the NBA’s platform, to continue to talk about what’s going on. Because I will not stop until I see real change for us in Black America, for African Americans, for people of color. And I also believe I can do both, though.”
James said he always expected to play in the restart to the season: “I am here for one goal and one goal only and that is to win a championship.”