Diego Simeone has called it a transition season for Atletico Madrid but while he was the best man before, results have raised doubts about whether he is right for what comes next.
A 1-0 defeat at home to Barcelona this month crushed Atletico’s chances of rejoining La Liga’s title race before a draw away at Villarreal on Friday might have made it impossible for another year.
Yet less than an hour after Lionel Messi darted inside and fired a winner into Jan Oblak’s bottom corner, Simeone was framing Atletico’s season in a way he had never done previously.
“You have to understand the enormous amount of change that has taken place in the team and we need time to improve,” he said. “We must understand we are in a year of transition.”
When Antoine Griezmann, Lucas Hernandez, Diego Godin, Rodri, Juanfran and Filipe Luis all departed last summer, the fear was not that Atleti would need time but that they might not recover at all.
Then as the replacements came in, expectations rose. Joao Felix, Hector Herrera, Kieran Trippier, Marcos Llorente, Renan Lodi, Mario Hermoso and Ivan Saponjic all signed, with Felix the headline arrival.
The 126 million euros Atletico paid Benfica for the Portuguese gem increased hope a new era would usher in a new style too.
But Felix was 19, now 20, and in the starting line-up against Barcelona, there was not a single player over the age of 29. More than just experience, Atletico have lost leadership and a sense of identity.
Godin, Juanfran and Filipe Luis were respected figures in the dressing room and three out of the four-man defence Atletico had come to be defined by.
“My Spanish is bad and my words can be confused,” said Simeone, referring to the idea of a transition on Friday. “I speak of players like Lodi, who is 21 years old, and has replaced someone like Filipe, who is 34.
“But I have eight years here as a coach and three as a player and anyone that believes the word transition means just sunbathing and waiting for the flowers to come out, they don’t know me.”
Few would doubt Simeone’s sense of urgency but the fate of someone like Arsene Wenger at Arsenal, where Simeone has been linked with a move, shows stagnation even under a cherished coach can only last so long.
Simeone’s problem has not just been high expectations. His claims of inexperience would be more persuasive if Atletico were suffering from naivety.
Instead, their weakness, an all too familiar one, has not been in throwing away leads but rather failing to take them.
When they won the title in 2014, Atletico had scored 43 goals at this stage of the season. In the last three, they had 29, 25 and 24 by now and this term they have managed only 16.
Tactically, Simeone’s tendency is to prioritise solidity at the back but he appears to have been too cautious in the transfer market too.
Alvaro Morata’s form has been encouraging but with four league goals, he is already some way behind chief scorers at Real Madrid and Barcelona. Karim Benzema has 11 goals and Lionel Messi 12.
Moves for Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Edinson Cavani in January would add nous and quality but it is likely to be too late in La Liga, and perhaps even in the Champions League.
Atletico play Lokomotiv Moscow on Wednesday, needing a victory to guarantee second place in Group D and a spot in the last 16.
Anything less at the Wanda Metropolitano and they will have to match what Bayer Leverkusen manage at home to Juventus, who are unlikely to be at full pelt having already won the group.
In normal circumstances, Atletico would be confident of deeming Leverkusen’s result in Germany irrelevant but disappointment and doubt means faith in the team, and their coach, is wavering.
Simeone cannot afford another slip.
Europe beckons for South African rugby after Kiwi snub
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, Jul 20 – World Cup-winning Springbok Schalk Brits believes the future of South African rugby lies in Europe after New Zealand said there was no room for sides from the republic in Super Rugby.
“All of this jet lag and flying across different time zones just does not work,” said the hooker who retired after the triumphant 2019 World Cup campaign.
“We have got so many South Africans playing in Europe and it would be awesome to see them in action here for European clubs.”
With New Zealand favouring a trans-Tasman Super Rugby competition, South Africa Rugby chief executive Jurie Roux will address the media Tuesday about the way forward.
There has been no rugby in South Africa since mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic, which claimed 5,033 lives by late Sunday, the most in an African country.
Here, AFP Sport looks at the possibilities for the world champions Springboks and Super Rugby teams the Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers.
There has been speculation that the six-round annual tournament will be cut to four matches with New Zealand and Australia playing in South Africa only every second year.
That would be a huge blow for SA Rugby coffers as the century-old rivalry with the All Blacks makes them a huge drawcard.
South Africa might consider abandoning the Championship and pursuing a suggestion by former All Blacks Justin Marshall and Jeff Wilson for three-Test tours between the great rivals.
“British and Irish Lions tours are so successful because we look forward to them,” noted another ex-All Black, John Kirwan. The same could be said of an All Blacks-Springboks series.
Should South African franchises move north, would the Springboks follow suit and apply to join England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales in a ‘Seven Nations’ championship?
Having the world champions on board would surely excite the organisers and costs would be greatly reduced if the Springboks played their three away matches on consecutive weekends.
England, Ireland, France and Wales, in particular, would bring freshness for rugby followers, who have not rushed to the turnstiles for Championship visits by Australia and Argentina.
Ask the SA Rugby treasurer for his ‘dream’ line-up and he would surely say a multi-Test tour by the All Blacks and participation in the ‘Seven Nations’.
Although not official yet, the reality is that New Zealand want to play some Australian sides and the Pacific Islands in a new competition while excluding South Africa and Argentina.
The original version, a Super 10 between 1993 and 1995, was a superb competition, but constant tinkering and expansion has led to waning interest in a difficult-to-follow event.
Even those supporting the Golden Lions of South Africa could not have derived too much satisfaction from a 94-7 thrashing of Japanese visitors the Sunwolves three years ago.
South Africa sides often battled with time differences in Australasia — New Zealand is 11 hours ahead of the republic — and were weary after four-match tours.
Pro14 chief executive Martin Anayi says he would welcome Super Rugby ‘rejects’ the Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers into an expanded edition.
“The tournament works well but could be even better if we added some South African teams,” he said, referring to a competition that also includes Irish, Italian, Scottish and Welsh teams.
But there may be no room for the two current South African Pro14 participants, the Cheetahs and Kings, who have experienced very different fortunes.
While the Cheetahs have been competitive, the Kings won just four of 55 matches in three seasons with some of the losing margins embarrassing.
The domestic competition has survived constant format changes to remain the vital ‘nursery’ from which Springboks emerge.
First staged in 1892, it was the bedrock of South African rugby until the dawn of professionalism after the 1995 Rugby World Cup.
As Test and Super Rugby fixtures took up an increasing amount of the season, the Currie Cup often battled for calendar space.
But it survived and this year could feature the four Super Rugby sides plus the Cheetahs, Kings, Griquas and Pumas, if play is possible amid the coronavirus.
Kenya records highest number of deaths from Covid-19
Kenya’s coronavirus cases rise to 13,771 after 418 more infections
Kenya on Monday reported 418 more Covid-19 infections, raising the country’s tally to 13,771 since the virus was first confirmed on March 13.
Health Chief Administrative Secretary (CAS) Rashid Aman also reported four more deaths, raising the toll to 238. He rectified an earlier report about 19 deaths in a single day, which would have been the highest number ever recorded in Kenya.
The 418 new patients were found following the testing of 2,474 samples in the last 24 hours.
Four hundred and eight of them were Kenyans and 10 foreigners while male patients numbered 263 and female patients 155.
Dr Aman also announced that 494 patients had been discharged, raising the country’s total number of recoveries to 5,616.
Of the recovered patients, 465 were under home care and the rest in hospitals.
More to follow