Uncertainty envelops Atletico Madrid as an era of success draws to a close
The news that Real Madrid seem sure to pick off one of the most promising "next generation" Atletico Madrid players may or may not prove to be a massive setback for Los Rojiblancos in a footballing sense.
But the loss of Theo Hernandez, after a hugely successful season on loan at Alaves, is a metaphor for troubling times at Atleti. Especially with the Champions League semifinal against Madrid, who won the first leg 3-0, already out of their hands.
The first thing it says is that, should Atleti's FIFA transfer ban not be appealed successfully -- as happened in Real Madrid's case -- then this left-back is one potential "in-house" replacement who, instead, will not be there anymore.
The second thing that the Hernandez example tells us is that Madrid now look upon Atleti as weak.
It wasn't so long ago -- at the very most a couple of seasons -- that a young footballer like the 19-year-old French left-back would have taken a long, lateral look around and concluded something quite different.
Then, Atleti were the coming club and Theo, as he's known in Spain, is precisely the kind of player that Diego Simeone likes: A fine athlete, who is technically able, ultra-competitive, tall and quick.
So, Theo was signed to the club where his brother Lucas is also progressing and his dad once played; he was given a contract until 2021 and was also guaranteed lots of game time next season. And there was also the possibility of medals given that, since 2010, Atleti have won nine trophies and reached the Champions League final twice.
Then there was what another lateral look around, this time toward the other side of the city, would have told him.
Madrid were, at time, a hierarchy club. If you were an expensive signing, if the president Florentino Perez was rooting for your success and if you had good marketing profile, then you played.
Now Los Blancos are run, on the footballing side at least, by Theo's fellow native of Marseille. And Zinedine Zidane is very noticeably turning Madrid operation into a meritocracy. More, they suddenly not only out-pay Atleti, but they outplay them and win more trophies.
The degree of change over two seasons, from February 2015 when Simeone's team ran absolute riot and hammered Carlo Ancelotti's Madrid 4-0 -- it could have been a bigger margin -- is startling.
The Bernabeu club started that match with eight of those players, who now dominate Spanish, European and world football, yet were humiliated. By contrast, six of Atleti's XI that day either don't feature now or have left the club.
Compare between then and now and, in theory, Atleti have improved man-for-man. But they've declined, noticeably, in terms of results in their very biggest games.
Speaking about Theo on Spanish radio, Atletico legend Paolo Futre said that he was surprised at Madrid for breaking the clubs' long-standing, but verbal, "non-aggression" pact, which was aimed at avoiding tit-for-tat bids for each other's players.
"Given how rich they are, Madrid could sign just about anyone they want. Relations between the clubs have been very good recently and it seems strange to me that Florentino Perez is willing to smash that by choosing to go for one of Atleti's talented kids."
Well, Paulo, it's because he sees Atleti as having hit a wall. He sees them as weak and ready for a raid that could have larger repercussions than simply breaking informal goodwill. What's more, it's a tactic he'd also use toward Antoine Griezmann.
Look at it like this: The two greatest strengths Atleti have exhibited since the end of 2011 are exceptional recruitment and an exceptional manager.
Now, though, they are blocked on the former, just when the squad looks in need not only of more quality but more competition for places. Unless their FIFA ban is rescinded, though, the summer of 2018 will be the next time they can enact a serious, strategic recruitment drive and adequately bed in new players.
Some of their players look as if they are just short of the ferocious competitive level, which made this squad special. They appear not to have to look over their shoulder and worry about someone jostling for their starting position. And that's a fatal climate to allow.
More, as he approaches his 34th birthday, club captain Gabi is clearly not having the same impact on the biggest matches as he once did.
Might there still be splutters of the vinegar and gunpowder mix that made opposition players hate facing him? Yes, perhaps. But his spiral is downwards; age dictates as such.
As for the manager, Simeone has been utterly exceptional and, before he changed the club's landscape, what he's achieved this season would have been viewed as truly wonderful.
Atleti were competitive in the Copa del Rey and, in a wild semifinal second leg against Barcelona, could easily have taken the tie to extra-time or even have won.
Meanwhile, they're third in the league and will again qualify automatically for the money box that is the Champions League.
Plus, they're not out of this season's competition just yet and, even if they do fall this week, this season's escapades are, in some ways, potentially more beneficial to the club than actually winning that tournament.
That's because, if the squad that wins the trophy has a strong bonus-system negotiating committee, then it can mean the payouts cause Champions League glory to mean just a very small profit -- or even a loss -- for the club
Losing the final or going out in the final four tends to incur minor bonus payments, if any. Last year's beaten semifinalists took in between €59-83 million and, if knocked out on Wednesday, Atleti will collect a sum somewhere in the middle of those two figures, just a small slice of which will go to the players. That's vital income, which goes way beyond for what Atleti will have budgeted.
But the silver lining has a cloud.
Recent results against Madrid, especially, and Barcelona suggest there are only a couple of ways in which Simeone can healthily decide to stay at Atleti beyond this season.
Particularly against their cross-city rivals, the spell he has over his players looks to be broken, as if the crucial ultra-adrenaline of total self-belief has been spent.
What's left is men vs. boys and, from being the team that routinely beat Madrid, Atleti have begun to resemble the squads which, from 1999-2013, simply couldn't imagine themselves winning the derby match.
One healthy remedy is for Simeone to accept that there is a lifespan for a coach as intense and demanding as he, and take one of the deluge of offers, particularly from Inter, which await him like low-hanging fruit. That would represent a new beginning for him, the Atleti squad and the club's incoming coach.
But, in my opinion, this is how he could legitimately stay. What is more relevant begins with what happens in the second leg vs. Madrid.
If, whether they go through or not, Atleti win decisively in front of an adoring Calderon crowd, in the stadium's last-ever European match, it would begin to get the Real Madrid monkey off their back. The re-set button would be pressed.
Next is the tactic that Liverpool used during their golden era and which Sir Alex Ferguson adopted to still greater success at Manchester United: Surgically strip parts of the squad out and transplant in new, hungry and obedient talent.
The only trouble with that approach? As mentioned before, FIFA still say that this cannot happen in the summer of 2017. As such, staying in the hope of regenerating and rebuilding would mean Simeone accepts and embraces the idea of remaining at the club for four or five more years, not just one.
There is also a third alternative: If Simeone's employers accept that Atleti are, for the time being at least, unable to compete with Madrid and that another season of "close but no cigar" is acceptable because the move to the new Estadio La Peineta stadium must not -- at any cost -- be undermined by the departure of a legendary coach.
Beyond one of those instances and with clubs that possess vastly bigger war chests eyeing up the buyout clauses of Griezmann and Jan Oblak, this feels like end of era for Simeone and Atletico.
To be clear, from the personal viewpoint of someone who revels in Spanish football being intense, competitive and internationally successful, I'd have a personal preference for Simeone taking stock, deciding that he has a "second era" in him and settling in for the medium term. Quality like his isn't easily replaced.
But Atleti have reached a point where they are not as healthy as they have been for most of the time since the Argentinian manager took over one Feliz Navidad; when Christmas 2011 saw the beginning of the greatest era in the club's history.
Make no mistake, that era is drawing to a close. Temporarily, I hope.
Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.