By Richard Martin
(Reuters) – Atletico Madrid’s seemingly unshakeable position as Spain’s third force has come under threat following a slide in form and they desperately need to get their season back on track when they visit Villarreal in La Liga on Friday.
The match would be taking place in Miami had the league got its way but after losing a legal battle last month, the teams will be meeting on the shores of Spain’s east coast rather than the sunshine state.
Atletico’s season had promised so much after a flying start of three straight wins but they have been on a downward spiral since, earning only three victories in their last 12 games.
The club have finished in the top three in La Liga in all seven full seasons under Diego Simeone but are currently sixth in the standings, six points off leaders Barcelona and second-placed Real Madrid, who each have a game in hand.
Barca host struggling Mallorca on Saturday in search of a fourth straight league win while Real, who are unbeaten in their last eight games, are at home to 19th-placed Espanyol.
Atleti’s hopes of repeating 2014’s remarkable title win have all but faded with Sunday’s 1-0 defeat at home to Barca, yet even finishing in the top four might prove a challenge unless they can find some inspiration soon.
Simeone’s side are far from entertaining, with only six teams in the league having scored fewer than their 16 goals, although they can boast the second best defence.
Friday’s game represents an ideological clash of sorts — Villarreal, who are 13th in the table, have the best attack outside of Real and Barca but the fifth worst defence.
Simeone has blamed his side’s recent struggles on the huge overhaul his squad underwent in the post season, asking for patience in a “season of transition”.
He can point to key departures such as Antoine Griezmann, their top scorer for the last five seasons, stalwart defenders Juanfran, Filipe Luis, Diego Godin and Lucas Hernandez, plus Spain midfielder Rodrigo.
But the club spent a staggering 300 million euros (£257.72 million) on replenishing their squad and many of their new arrivals are not stepping up, especially 126-million euro man Joao Felix, who has failed to score for over two months.
“We’re worried but now is the time to dig in and stay united,” added midfielder Saul Niguez.
“It’s a delicate situation but we’ll only get out of it by working hard.”
(Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Toby Davis)