Atlético Madrid had a bad week. A really bad week. After taking over first place on February 2nd, Diego Simeone's team have lost two straight matches conceding five goals and failing to score any of their own. Now they find themselves in a massive hold against Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey and back down to third place in the league (though still even on points).
The natural reaction is to presume that the pressure and busy schedule have caught up with Atléti. The condensed Copa del Rey schedule that has forced the teams involved to play two games a week for over a month have definitely taken their toll as injuries and fatigue are dragging on the roster.
Starting fullback Filipe Luis has missed several games, as has froward David Villa. Starting goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois missed Saturday's stunning loss against Almeria, as his replacement Daniel Aranzubía's made two howlers. Now Tiago is out after spraining his knee.
Atléti's already thin roster, limited by the financial retraints the club deals with, has been stretched thin, and the most disheartening thing is that there's no relief in sight because the games keep coming.
Atlético must take the pitch again on Tuesday for the second leg of their cup semifinal against Real Madrid and then follow up with two more games in nine days as the Champions League returns. Fighting battles on two fronts is often a big challenge for even deep teams, but trying to keep up your form while dealing with three separate competitions is a lot to ask for anyone.
Perhaps Simeone's biggest mistake has been failing to properly manage his team's priorities and pushing too hard in the Copa del Rey. Despite the desire to defend their title from 2013, it may have simply been too much to ask for his team to stay sharp and healthy through such a grueling run. There's nothing wrong with being ambitious but seemingly it would make more sense to chase the league title over a cup competition.
I should probably tap the breaks just a bit though as well because it's not as if Atlético are suddenly out of the title race. They're still even on points with both Barcelona and Real Madrid and get one more shot at both teams in the league this season. Yes, they've lost a battle, but as people often say, the war is far from over.
Considering all that information, it should be interesting how Simeone approaches Tuesday's Copa del Rey match against Real Madrid will be quite interesting. Down by three goals, few would grumble if Atléti packed it up and just tried to avoid getting completely blown away by their rivals. The trouble is, another loss might do additional damage to the already fragile psyche of the team.
Simeone doesn't just have to manage his team's tactics and fitness, he has to deal with their psychology as well. Perhaps behind the locker room doors they agree as a group to write off the Copa del Rey and look past Tuesday's match, no matter what happens on the pitch. Perhaps they decide that getting a positive result, even if they don't advance, is more important given the recent poor run of form.
Whatever choice Simeone and his team make will be extremely important, because it will set the tone for the final four months of the season and whether or not they remain in the middle of the La Liga title race.