MADRID (Reuters) - Atletico Madrid may be the second best team in Spain according to the La Liga standings but Diego Simeone's side are showing signs of stagnation as they prepare to host Juventus in Wednesday's Champions League last-16 first leg match.
Atletico bounced back from two consecutive defeats to Real Betis and Real Madrid with a 1-0 win at struggling Rayo Vallecano on Saturday.
However, their limp performance does not inspire confidence ahead of the visit of the all-powerful Serie A leaders and familiar foe Cristiano Ronaldo.
While results have largely been good, taking Atletico above Real Madrid and seven points behind leaders Barcelona, their performances have left a lot to be desired.
They have become increasingly reliant on goalkeeper Jan Oblak and talismanic forward Antoine Griezmann, their leading scorer with 16 goals in all competitions. His nearest challenger is midfielder Koke, who has scored four times.
A tally of 33 injuries, affecting influential players such as defenders Filipe Luis, Diego Godin and striker Diego Costa, has not helped their cause, although there is a sense that they are still underperforming.
"Every year Atletico have a better squad but they are trying to play the same way as in Simeone's first year," said Spanish radio presenter Manu Carreno.
"They are loyal to a style but we should be able to ask more of this Atletico team."
Even at their peak, such as when winning the 2014 La Liga title or reaching the Champions League finals in 2014 and 2016, Simeone's side never have been a thrilling, swashbuckling outfit.
"Atletico are more like an Italian team than a Spanish team, they have quality players but they don't play like Barcelona, they are a tight team and play direct football and achieved great results," Juventus defender Giorgio Chiellini told Marca.
But they now appear to be missing the intensity, fight and desire for which they were once renowned.
The recent 3-1 defeat at home by city rivals Real Madrid was a case in point, as Atletico frequently lost aerial battles and were outmuscled in midfield.
"Atletico are a team in transition but they don't know where they are going," said Spanish radio pundit Julio Pulido.
"Before playing against Atletico was like crashing into a wall, they had no weaknesses, now they are not this team, they are unrecognizable."
Overcoming inferior opposition such as Rayo has been difficult for Atletico, but they still seem to relish being the underdogs, a role they will find themselves in against Juventus, who are unbeaten in Serie A.
"Both sides are competitive machines," former captain Gabi told Radio Marca.
"In games like this it's vital you make as few mistakes as possible. And no team knows how to suffer like Atletico Madrid."
(Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Christian Radnedge)