By Karl Matchett.
Having led La Liga at the turn of the year and still been in the running to compete for a treble, Atletico Madrid will be disappointed at how the last month has panned out, losing their spot atop the table to Barcelona and exiting the Copa del Rey at the hands of Celta Vigo.
Their latest couple of fixtures have highlighted both the strengths and the weaknesses of this Atleti side: 0-0 in La Liga against Villarreal, and 0-0 against PSV Eindhoven in the Champions League.
A near-impenetrable back line, marshalled by Diego Godin and with a last line of protection-Jan Oblak-as good as any side other than Bayern Munich have to offer, Atletico simply don't concede many chances, and have a top-class 'keeper to stop those which do sneak through. At the other end of the pitch though, the story is far from as successful.
Star forward Antoine Griezmann has 19 for the season in all competitions, but hasn't netted against any of the other top five sides in La Liga this term and hasn't found the back of the net in five league games, as well as against PSV. Moved from the centre out to the right flank in the last couple of games, he's still a vital part of the team-but badly needs someone else to step up for him and contribute to the goalscoring when he's not in-form.
Manager Diego Simeone has tried to do that in a number of ways, from rotating the starting striker or partner for Griezmann, to shifting forward Saul from midfield in an attempt to utilise his powerful bursts into the box. Without the pace and creativity of Yannick Carrasco to open spaces in midfield though, Atleti's build-up play can be predictable and direct-easily defended by an organised back four-or else lacking in runners beyond the front man or in pace off the ball.
This coming weekend they have not only an opportunity to exploit ready-made gaps in a leaky defence, but a chance to reassert themselves as the biggest challenges to Barcelona's La Liga crown: the local derby at the Santiago Bernabeu, against Real Madrid.
Real's defensive performance against Malaga in their last Liga outing was nothing short of horrendous, with individual errors coupled with a lack of organisation contributing to give up chance after chance on goal. A poor attacking team themselves without composure at key moments, Malaga passed up a gift of three points and only claimed a 1-1 draw-it's unthinkable that the Real Madrid defence and midfield will be as accommodating or error-strewn in a bigger, more high-profile game.
Even so, Malaga have shown Atletico the route to goal: press high, harass the central midfield and flood the channels. Real's defence will be pulled all over the shop and any amount of movement and quick passing should yield chances on goal as a result-but the issue remains, who scores if not Griezmann? Fernando Torres, Angel Correa and Luciano Vietto have all fallen short in this regard.
Atleti have, in the main, had a very good season. They've run Barcelona close in La Liga twice, were certainly the better team the last time they met, drew with Real earlier in the season, beat Sevilla and are likely to make the last eight in Europe once again. Silverware will be difficult, but is not entirely out of the question.
However, none will be sustainable-the challenge for titles, their lofty position in La Liga-without an additional source of goals.
They cannot 0-0 their way to the league title, even if the defence is an absolutely paramount part of their challenge.
Whether it's getting more creativity and invention out of Koke, freeing up Oliver Torres to play off a centre-forward or simply trusting in the aggressive magic of Correa, someone has to be let off the leash by Simeone enough to yield a greater number of chances and shots on goals.
One or two slip-ups by Barcelona, and Atleti could be back in the title fight-but they need to win games of their own too, and at present the over-reliance on an out of form Griezmann is costing them the opportunity.