Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone probably realised his side would have little chance of a second straight La Liga triumph once the club decided to cash in and sell top scorer Diego Costa and other key players also moved on.
Beating wealthy Real Madrid and Barcelona to the Spanish title last term, as well as reaching the final of the Champions League, were remarkable achievements but it appears Atletico will fall some way short of matching them this season.
Sunday’s 1-1 draw at home to fourth-placed Valencia means Simeone’s men have won only one of their last four La Liga outings and are now seven points adrift of leaders Barca and six behind second-placed Real with 12 games left.
A resurgent Valencia are breathing down Atletico’s necks a point behind in fourth and Simeone said he and the players are determined to hang on to third and secure a place in Europe’s elite club competition for next season.
Sevilla, who held Atletico to a 0-0 draw at their Sanchez Pizjuan stadium at the start of the month and are five points behind Valencia in fifth, are also still in with a chance of a Champions League berth.
“The league is long and we have always said that our championship is competing against Valencia and Sevilla,” Simeone told a news conference after the stalemate at the Calderon.
“Neither could beat us in these last two matches and we still have the one-point advantage that we need to protect,” added the former Argentina captain.
“Reinventing ourselves the way we have and competing the way we are competing is a great achievement for the players.
“Hopefully when the season ends we will have secured that third spot.”
Atletico were unfortunate not to take all three points on Sunday after Valencia rode their luck to steal a late equaliser that cancelled out Koke’s first-half strike.
A Dani Parejo free kick ricocheted off the Atletico crossbar and centre back Shkodran Mustafi reacted quickest to nod home.
Atletico have a trip to Espanyol in La Liga on Saturday before they host Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League last 16, second leg on March 17.
The Bundesliga side won last month’s first leg in Germany 1-0.