- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 13, 2016

MADRID (AP) - Atletico Madrid is not used to struggling like this, not under coach Diego Simeone.

After its third loss in five Spanish league games on Monday, Atletico dropped to sixth place — its worst position at this point in the season since Simeone took charge in 2011.

The 3-0 loss at Villarreal left Atletico 12 points behind leader Real Madrid after 15 matches. It also trails Barcelona, Sevilla, Villarreal and Real Sociedad.

“There have been some mistakes,” said Simeone, who won the title with Atletico in 2014. “We accept the criticism. When a team loses two games in a row, things need to improve.”

Atletico also lost 1-0 at Bayern Munich in the Champions League, a result that snapped the team’s perfect record in the European competition. It was held to a disappointing 0-0 draw at home against Espanyol in its previous Spanish league game. One of its recent losses in the league was a demoralizing 3-0 setback against Madrid at home in the city derby.

“The team is trying its best to get in position to win,” Simeone said. “But in these last few games we are not having any luck, especially with the scoring chances, and that leads to losses. We have to keep working, because it’s the only way we can improve.”

Atletico has not been worse than third in the league since a fifth-place finish in 2011-12. The club was only 10th after 15 matches that season, but it improved significantly after Simeone took over in December 2011. Atletico was third at the end of the following season and won the league in 2013-14 to end a drought of nearly two decades.

Atletico was third again the last two seasons, and now it has some work to do just to secure a Champions League spot.

“Obviously we have to improve if we want to fight for the spots atop the standings,” Atletico captain Gabi Fernandez said.

The letdown comes as a surprise as Atletico entered the season with high expectations. Thanks to a significant increase in income from television rights, Simeone was able to add important pieces to the squad and fans expected Atletico to move even closer to the perennial powerhouses of Barcelona and Madrid.

But Simeone started experimenting with different formations and the team struggled with inconsistency. The squad’s offense got a boost but the usually stout defense lost some of its strength. Atletico conceded 11 goals in its last seven league games, and 14 in 15 games, only four goals less than the 18 it conceded in all 38 games in the league last season.

“We have to improve and stop allowing so many goals,” Fernandez said.

To make things worse for Simeone, he may be without goalkeeper Jan Oblak for a long period because he dislocated his left shoulder in the game against Villarreal, having to be substituted in the 40th minute at El Madrigal Stadium. Defensive midfielder Tiago Mendes also left the game before halftime because of a discomfort in his right knee.

Atletico’s next game is Saturday against 10th-place Las Palmas at the Vicente Calderon Stadium.

“There is still a lot of league ahead of us,” Atletico defender Stefan Savic said. “It’s not all lost. Last year Barcelona was 12 points in front and we got to within two at one stage. We are going through a difficult moment but we will rebound.”


Tales Azzoni on Twitter: https://twitter.com/tazzoni

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