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Atletico facing the abyss... again

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Phil Minshull | 06:30 UK time, Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Good times have been fleeting if you are an Atletico Madrid fan in the last decade or so, but now is a really a bad time even by their own beleaguered standards.

Without a single win to their name since the start of the season, Atletico now lie second from bottom in La Liga.

A torrid 0-0 draw against Cypriot minnows and supposed whipping boys APOEL Nicosia in the Champions League last Tuesday, with the fans howling their discontent at Atletico's seemingly disinterested players, was just a prelude to the dismal 5-2 drubbing by Barcelona on Saturday.

The headlines on Sunday were as merciless as the Catalan club had been on the pitch the night before.

"The champions abused Atletico," commented ABC cruelly. "Barca played, Atletico were the toys," added another newspaper.

forlan_blog.jpgDiego Forlan joined Atletico from Villarreal

The so-called third most famous, or should that be infamous, club in Spain is off to its worst start in a decade.

Few Atleti fans need reminding that the last time things were this bad - the 1999-2000 season - ended with the club being relegated for the first time since the early 1930s.

The wise men of the Spanish media are stroking their chins and repeating the old mantra that Atleti are too good to go down - didn't plenty of Premier League pundits say that last season about Newcastle - but many of their fans feel that once again they are staring into the abyss, aka the Spanish second division, aka El Infierno even though the season is barely a month old.

Of course, all and sundry are demanding reasons why Atletico should have fallen apart in spectacular fashion.

As always, with the Mattress Men - one of many Atleti nickname, but one that stems back to the early part of the last century when they started playing in the red-and-white jerseys that resemble the old horsehair mattress covers - the first question asked is: "Where's the money gone?"

Last season, Atletico had a budget - which has to be published under Spanish law - of 130m euros. This year it's a mere 80m euros.

Nobody at the club has yet come up with a coherent explanation of why there is nearly 40% less cash in the kitty, especially with some eagerly anticipated revenue from the Champions League.

Consequently, the only summer signing of note has been the Spanish international defender Juanito from Real Betis.

Yes, Diego Forlan and Kun Aguero are still at Atletico. There's no doubt they are world-class players, and also earning the salaries that go with such status.

However, the rest of the squad has been bolstered by returning loans like former Arsenal winger and whinger Jose Antonio Reyes - I bet you wondered what had happened to him - and some spotty adolescents boosted from the reserves.

In the tenuous name of research, I canvassed opinions on Saturday night at my usual watering hole Finbars, which resides little more than one of Reyes' hefty misplaced shots away from Atletico's Vicente Calderon.

The consensus puts the blame firmly on the Gil family that still control the club, with four family members still on the board of directors despite the death in 2004 of the patriarch, former Atletico president, the infamous Jesus Gil, who took over the club in 1987.

The nominal club Atletico president is Enrique Cerezo, a Gil family friend, but the man who still pulls the strings is Jesus Gil's son Miguel Angel, the club's chief executive.

"The Gil family have screwed things up so badly at the club that the leading players can't be bothered," was the prevalent opinion, born out by the vocal protests before the last few matches with fans carrying placards claiming: "22 years of Gil-ism is enough."

Expect renewed protests before Wednesday's game against Almeria.

aguero_blog.jpgAguero has scored just one goal this season

Anything less than three points could also see the Atletico coach Abel Resino, who the fans generally exonerate for contributing to the crisis, given his cards in the usual knee-jerk reaction when a Spanish football club president or directors are under fire.

Twelve years ago I found myself at the sharp end of Jesus Gil's overbearing presence at Atletico.

A week after I first arrived in Madrid, I was sent by an international news agency to cover the arrival of Juninho at Atletico.

After a couple of years at Middlesbrough, his English was better than my grasp of Spanish. I waited until the end of the press conference before piping up with a few questions of my own, to which he graciously replied despite audible sighs from others in the audience.

Jesus Gil made a couple of quips which were clearly at my expense and elicited sniggers from some of the local Atleti-watching media.

A week passed and Christian Vieri jetted in from Juventus.

After spending his formative years in Australia, here was another chance to ask a few questions in English, upon which Gil came out with a volley of unpleasant and sarcastic comments aimed at me.

To add to my embarrassment, the local television channel TeleMadrid decided to use coverage of me being the vehicle for Jesus Gil's amusement for another two years or so, until the humour finally started to pall.

Now the jokes revolve around the Gil family, although Atleti fans are not laughing very much at the moment.

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