SPAIN (REUTERS) - Sevilla's La Liga title hopes have been killed off because the players lack "emotional strength", coach Jorge Sampaoli said on Sunday (March 19).
Sevilla had been snapping at the heels of pacesetters Real Madrid and Barcelona for much of the season, but a run of three successive league matches without a win means that their promising title chase has unravelled.
Sunday's 3-1 defeat at Atletico Madrid left them trailing leaders Real by eight points and second-placed Barca by six. Real also have a game in hand.
"It's difficult to diagnose what has happened but it has a lot to do with our emotional strength. We had great expectations in fighting for the title and in the Champions League and everything that didn't go our way killed our hope," Sampaoli, whose side were also knocked out of Europe by last season's English Premier League champions Leicester City on Tuesday, told reporters.
"When you don't play well enough to win you feel frustrated and we have to return to our true selves and re-establish our identity.
"When things don't go how you expected them to, doubts appear and that happened today."
Less than three weeks ago, Sevilla were riding high after winning four successive La Liga matches which put them two points adrift of then leaders Barcelona and one behind Real.
They also had one foot in the quarter-finals of the Champions League after winning the first leg of their last-16 tie against Leicester 2-1.
However, since then they have completely lost their way, picking up just two points from three games and exiting Europe's elite competition following a surprise 2-0 second-leg defeat to resurgent Leicester.
To add to their woes, their advantage over fourth-placed Atletico was cut to two points after Sunday's defeat to Diego Simeone's side, who have won their last three league games.
Sevilla fell behind towards the end of the first half from a Diego Godin header following a free-kick and Atletico's second goal was a scorching dead-ball strike from Antoine Griezmann.
Koke stretched Atletico's lead before Joaquin Correa scored a consolation for Sevilla with five minutes remaining.
"We couldn't control the psychology of the game and details went against us. We were dominated at first then just as we started to control the game they scored from a set piece," added the Argentine coach.
"In the second half, the same thing happened and it was all uphill from then on."
The international break will provide Sevilla with a welcome respite from their troubles and the coach said he hoped the time off would boost his side.