When the Champions League groups were announced, there was no doubt that Group C was going to be a tough one to advance from. With Chelsea, Roma and Atlético Madrid all battling it out for two slots, we knew that one very good team wasn’t going to be in the knockout stage. But what we didn’t expect was that fourth-team Qarabağ, a displaced Azerbaijani club making its first-ever appearance in the Champions League, would be anything more than cannon-fodder—an easy six points for all the teams with an actual chance of going through the competition.
Four games in, Qarabağ isn’t a grand surprise, but with two scrappy points earned, they’ve managed to steal two more points than anyone would have been willing to give them at the start, and they’ve done it with back-to-back draws against perennial semifinalists Atlético Madrid. In doing so, they’ve almost completely destroyed Atlético’s European season. With only two games left, Atlético now likely needs to win its remaining games against Roma and Chelsea while hoping that Qarabağ can steal some points off those teams as well in order to stay alive.
It’s not that Atlético are especially bad or underachieving this year—they’re one of three remaining undefeateds through ten games of La Liga play. But in the Champions League, they have yet to get a win, and a combination of bad luck and a failure to finish their chances have left them in a dire situation.
The first draw against Qarabağ, in Azerbaijan, could have been a forgivable fluke, with tough travel and a hot goalie denying them a breakthrough goal. Tonight, however, was unforgivable. Up a man for a half hour after Pedro Henrique karate-kicked Diego Godin, Atlético still couldn’t break a 1-1 deadlock. Despite finishing with 11 shots on goal to Qarabağ’s three, they left their home field humiliated and nearly hopeless.
Atlético Madrid have been on the best run ever in the club’s history over the last few years, appearing in at least the quarterfinals of the last four straight Champions Leagues. In itself, finishing third in a tricky group to Chelsea and Roma after that kind of success is nothing to be ashamed of. But to do so because you went totally impotent against one of the biggest underdogs in Champions League history? That’s a pretty embarrassing blow to try and recover from.