The Europa League re-emerges from its winter hibernation this week, and Atlético are faced with a tough tie against Italian giants Lazio as our bid to regain the title continues.
Thursday’s clash in the renowned Stadio Olimpico will hold extra significance for manager Diego Simeone, who spent four years with the Biancocelesti and is still held in high regard.
Kick off in Rome is set for 19:00 CET.
On the back of two disappointing but not disheartening 0-0 draws, Atleti turn their attention back to Europe for a competition that fans everywhere will be desperate to get their hands on.
Next year the aim is to be back among the elite, but unlike some notable other participants, this year’s Europa League will be given full concentration by those in red and white.
Cholo has named a full strength squad of 19 for the trip, and the travelling party had the honour of visiting Pope Benedict XVI in the sacred Vatican City this morning.
Still missing is injury stricken captain Antonio López, who was joined on the treatment table this weekend by Tiago. The rejuvenated midfielder limped off in Saturday’s stalemate at Racing, and will also be staying behind in Madrid.
The only other first team absentee is Fran Mérida, yet to feature this season, as he already played in the competition while on loan at Braga.
Paulo Assunção earns a recall, and centre-backs Miranda and Godín return from suspension and injury respectively, presenting Simeone with a selection problem in defence following the solid performances of deputies Perea and Domínguez.
Our opponents, on the other hand, have had more severe injury problems and will be without Ştefan Radu, Lorik Cana, Tomasso Rocchi and Stefano Mauri for the first leg at least. André Dias, Mobilo Diakité and Senad Lulić have been cleared to play, but may not be quite at full fitness.
Currently 3rd in Serie A, Edy Reja’s side are enjoying a fine campaign domestically, just five points behind leaders Milan in the race for the Scudetto. They also qualified for the Europa League last 32 with reasonable comfort, sealing their passage from Group D with a 2-0 win over Sporting CP on matchday 6.
When asked about the current Lazio, Simeone had only good words for his former employers.
“The team are doing well with a coach who has long been familiar with the city and the club,” he said.
“In Serie A they are going strong, and I imagine they’ll want to do the same in the Europa League.”
Cholo came up against the sky blues last season when in charge of Catania, but has yet to return to the Olympic stadium since making the transition to management.
“I have great memories of Lazio, we became champions for only the second time in the club’s history,” he explained. “However, to come back to Atletico was something I always desired,”
“It was in my dreams and I was sure it could happen.” he said.
Lazio boss Reja also spoke during the week, and couldn’t hide his admiration for his opposite number.
“Simeone is a reference. You can see that the character and personality he had as a player has transferred over to his coaching” he said.
“It will be a tough game, Atlético have gone six games without conceding a goal, but we believe we can go as far as possible in this competition.”
The last time the two sides met was in the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup in 1998, when Lazio edged the Colchoneros by a 1-0 aggregate scoreline. Simeone was playing for Inter at the time, although Atleti did have Christian Vieri in their ranks. The Italian striker went on to join Lazio the following summer.
Tomorrow’s encounter will be our seventh under the new regime, five of which have come away from the Vicente Calderón.
Despite our rotten form on the road earlier in the season, Cholo has steadied the ship, and, as we all know, is yet to taste defeat or even see his new team concede a goal.
Taking an away goal back to Madrid is the objective, and if we manage to extend our run of clean sheets to seven matches, a clear advantage can be established going into next Thursday’s second leg.
Atlético match selection:
Goalkeepers: Courtois, Asenjo
Defenders: Godín, Filipe, Sílvio, Domínguez, Perea, Miranda
Midfielders: Mario Suárez, Salvio, Arda, Assunção, Gabi, Koke, Juanfran, Diego
Forwards: Adrián, Falcao, Pizzi
Lazio match selection:
Goalkeepers: Berardi, Bizzarri, Marchetti
Defenders: Biava, Diakitè, Dias, Konko, Stankevicius, Zauri
Midfielders: Candreva, Gonzalez, Hernanes, Ledesma, Lulic, Matuzalem, Zampa
Forwards: Kozak, Klose, Rozzi
Referee: Pavel Kralovec (Czech Republic)