Atletico starts 2019 with big goals and bigger concerns

              FILE - In this Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2018 file photo, Atletico coach Diego Simeone attends a press conference at Wanda Metropolitano stadium in Madrid, Spain. Atletico starts the year under the highest expectations since coach Diego Simeone transformed it from an chronic underachiever into a perennial title contender seven years ago. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez, File)

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — It’s probably now or maybe never for Atletico Madrid.

The Spanish club will start 2019 under the highest expectations since coach Diego Simeone transformed the team from a chronic underachiever into a perennial title contender.

Atletico has one date circled on the calendar: June 1, when its home stadium hosts the Champions League final.

As club president Enrique Cerezo said recently: “For the new year I ask for the team to keep playing well and, with the Champions League final in the Wanda Metropolitano, that we reserve that date.”

Simeone’s team is also fighting for the Spanish league title, trailing leader Barcelona by three points nearing the midway mark.

But despite entering the second half of the season on pace to shoot for its lofty goals, there are some serious concerns about both the present and future of the most successful era in Atletico’s history.

Standing in the way of returning to the Champions League final that it lost to Real Madrid in 2014 and 2016 is a demanding last 16 matchup against Juventus, now led by former Madrid great Cristiano Ronaldo, in February and March.

In the Spanish league, Atletico has not matched its championship form from 2014, when it surprisingly won the title. Atletico is undefeated at home and has the best defense in Spain with a league-low 12 goals conceded. Yet it has only two wins in eight away matches, and often settles for a draw instead of pushing for a winning goal.

On Sunday, Atletico will face a true test after coming off a two-week break for all Spanish teams when it visits third-place Sevilla. A loss in Seville combined with a Barcelona victory at Getafe would leave it playing catch up.

Atletico, however, faces an even bigger problem.

An expert motivator, Simeone has year after year gotten his players to buy into his physically demanding, no-frills style of play.

That commitment by his players has been met by financial compensation from the club.

Atletico convinced Antoine Griezmann to turn down an offer by Barcelona last year by increasing his salary and signing France international teammate Thomas Lemar.

Now, Spanish media report that the injured striker Diego Costa wants more money, while both Simeone and Jan Oblak — one of the continent’s most prize goalkeepers — are in line to get higher salaries.

Also, Diego Godin, Filipe Luis and Juanfran Torres, three veteran pieces of the team’s defense, all have contracts that finish in June and as of this week are free to negotiate with other clubs.

Atletico already parted ways with two iconic players last season when then-captain Gabi Fernandez and fan favorite Fernando Torres left the club. The loss of Godin and other players would mean the breaking up of Atletico’s core.

But the club says it is reaching a limit on what it can sustain.

Atletico executive Miguel Angel Gil Marin said last week that 78 percent of the club’s budget of 407.8 million euros ($462.5 million) goes to its squad and coaches.

“The club is making an effort beyond its real capabilities to keep its talent and bring in new players,” Gil said. “We are the club that spends the highest percentage on acquiring new players and the salaries of players and coaches.”

Cerezo also confirmed that the club can only do so much, saying that it needs players to not put money first.

“It is important to keep growing, but I don’t know for how long we can do so,” the Atletico president said. “Every club wants the best players, and many of them are here at Atletico. They are with us for economic reasons, but also for what we can achieve on the field, because at this club they can become a part of something eternal.”

Eternity, in sports, comes in the material touch of a trophy. So winning an elusive European Cup or another league title may prove to be the key to keeping this Atletico team together.