Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone blamed poor finishing for their exit at the Champions League group stage on Tuesday but was adamant that the early departure was “not a disaster” for the Spanish club.
Atletico, finalists in 2014 and 2016 and consistently one of Europe’s heavyweights under Simeone’s stewardship, were eliminated after a 1-1 draw at Chelsea sealed their fate.
Even if they had won, the doughty side that reached the quarterfinals or better in the last four editions, would have bowed out with AS Roma’s 1-0 win over Qarabag ensuring the Italians leapfrogged Chelsea to top Group C.
Simeone’s team struggled to score on their travels in this season’s competition, with Saul Niguez’s opener at Chelsea being their only away goal after 0-0 draws at Roma and Qarabag.
“Football is about finishing at the end of the day and it’s clear we’ve not done that in the Champions League this year and have paid the price,” Simeone, who has overseen three wins in Atletico’s last 11 away games in the competition, told reporters.
“We are not looking for excuses. We are responsible for not qualifying from the group. It’s hard to explain.
“It’s not good to be out of the Champions League but there is still a long season ahead and we will be assessed at the end of it. It’s not a disaster. It’s a situation that can happen.”
Simeone is the great over-achiever of European football, having had so much success with his squad against the might of Spain’s richly-funded big two, Barcelona and Real Madrid.
Yet while Atletico are still notoriously tough to beat and are lying a threatening third in La Liga, the latest setback prompted reporters to ask the passionate Argentine if there was now a risk of his squad breaking up.
“No, quite the opposite,” he said. “A new challenge is opening up that we will fight for. We must be pleased. It was a really tough group.”
Chelsea were left with the possibility of facing even more difficult opposition in the last 16 as group runners-up but manager Antonio Conte sounded unfazed.
“We must be ready to face the best teams. If you want to be a protagonist in this competition, you have to be ready to play against every team,” he said.
“Sometimes it’s not so important (finishing top),” he added, recalling how when he was Italy manager they had top play Spain and Germany at Euro 2016 after winning their group.
Chelsea’s best player Eden Hazard, whose cross was deflected into his own net by Atletico’s Stefan Savic for the equaliser, told BT Sport: “It’s not a problem who we get, we are Chelsea.
“We know PSG (Paris St Germain) and Barcelona are very good but we are a top team too. We can do anything.”