Loss to Levante Highlights Atletico Madrid's Small Margin for Error

Tim CollinsFeatured ColumnistMay 4, 2014

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There has been no greater compliment given to Atletico Madrid than the footballing world acknowledging Los Rojiblancos as the most robust machine in Europe this season.

Rugged, tenacious and wonderfully balanced, Diego Simeone's outfit has epitomised the beauty of variety, winning admirers across the globe with a distinctly unique style that has yielded results vastly beyond what the sum of the team's parts would have suggested was possible.

But, at times (and somewhat lamentably), the highly desirable attributes inherent in this Atletico team—namely defensive organisation, discipline and tactical acumen—can't replace the influence that superstar talent can often exert when tension begins to take effect.

That was evident amid the mechanical failure of the Atletico machine against Levante on Sunday, as the paltry margin for error in Los Colchoneros' La Liga title challenge was highlighted.

After a sterling 3-1 victory over Chelsea in the Champions League on Wednesday, Simeone made four changes (one of which was forced) to his side for its visit to Estadi Ciutat de València.

David Villa and Raul Garcia joined Diego Costa in attack, Gabi came in for Mario Suarez in central midfield, while Toby Alderweireld replaced the suspended Juanfran.

Alberto Saiz/Associated Press

The moves indicated that Simeone clearly understood the importance of freshness against a well-drilled Joaquin Caparros-managed side renowned for making life difficult for opponents at home.

However, instead of the expected vitality, the changes to the Atletico side appeared to leave the team somewhat disjointed. Gabi and Tiago struggled to wrestle control from Levante's midfield trio of Papakouli Diop, Simao and Mohamed Sissoko, the latter of which regularly retreated to closely mark Costa around the home team's penalty area.

The usually brilliant Koke also appeared fatigued on the left-hand side, while Villa and Costa were presented with few chances to make an impact in a physical first half.

With Garcia floating forward from the right to provide another target in the box, Simeone's men often played long and direct, but found it difficult to get in behind the Levante defence with such little control in the middle of the pitch.

Just days after propelling themselves into the Champions League final, there was an apparant stiffness to Atletico's display; the pressure of expectation showing itself for the first time among Simeone's players.

That, of course, was not aided by Filipe Luis' early own goal, which immediately sent a wave of tension through La Liga's leaders.

Alberto Saiz/Associated Press

Often, it's in these matches, these encounters when a team finds itself facing a deficit against diligent opponents, that individual brilliance is required. A freak goal, a surging run or an indefensible pass—anything to wrestle back the initiative, confidence and momentum.

It's these moments that are so often delivered by the game's pre-eminent stars that regularly determine the outcome of title races.

Despite the team's unrivalled cohesion, Atletico is without the plethora of phenomenons that so often bail out the team's major rivals in Madrid and across the country in Barcelona in similar situations.

Across the duration of the second half on Sunday, that fact only became more visible.

Simeone quickly made three changes, all of which immediately improved the fluidity of Los Rojiblancos. Adrian and Arda Turan replaced Villa and Garcia at the beginning of the half, before Koke made way for Diego on the hour mark.

While Atletico's fluency dramatically increased, which saw the visitors come close to grabbing the equaliser on a number of occasions, the capacity to blow the game apart was evidently missing.

Indeed, it's a theme that has been quietly encroaching into Atletico's league campaign over recent weeks, given that Simeone's side have triumphed in a number of close encounters against Valencia, Granada, Villarreal and Espanyol and haven't scored more than twice in a league match since February 23 after a blistering opening to the season in front of goal.

In that sence, a Levante outfit inspired by the outstanding goalkeeper Keylor Navas was an inopportune adversary for Atletico on such a pivotal afternoon.

Of course, all of this only serves to enhance the magnitude of what Atletico has achieved this season despite a paucity of world-recognised superstars.

With the league still in reach and a Champions League final on the way, Los Colchoneros are still capable of completing a truly historic campaign.

But the team's loss on Sunday was a timely reminder of just how fine the margins are for Simeone's adored outfit.