The games are coming thick and fast for Atlético Madrid at the moment, and on Thursday night we play our biggest of the season so far, hosting Valencia in a Europa League semi-final.
Kick-off in what will be an electric Vicente Calderón is set for 21:05 CET.
After seeing off AZ Alkmaar in the last round, Unai Emery’s team will be seeking revenge for their quarter-final exit in 2010, when the Rojiblancos controversially triumphed on away goals before going on to win the competition.
Although currently third in the league, los Che have struggled to find form as of late – but will no doubt be pumped up for the chance to reach their first European final in eight years.
Atlético on the other hand have focused almost exclusively on this tie since beating Hannover a fortnight ago, highlighted by this motivational video the club released on Monday.
Our Europa League form has been of contrast to that of domestic competition though, so it will be interesting to see how we approach a game against one of our compatriots. From our 16 continental matches this season we have won 14, compared to a mere 12 from 35 in league and cup.
When Valencia visited the Calderón back in February we were promised a thrilling battle between strikers Falcao and Soldado, but ultimately defences conquered that evening in an uninspiring goalless draw.
El Tigre has hit a hot streak since then with fourteen goals in as many starts, although his opposite number has not been quite as prolific in the second half of the season. However, despite missing the last couple of games with a thigh strain, reports suggest that Roberto Soldado will return to lead the line tomorrow night.
Emery opted to bring a full squad along for the trip, only missing the injured Éver Banega and Antonio Barragán through suspension.
For the home side, Antonio López and Sílvio remain on the treatment table, and we will also be without Diego Godín due to an accumulation of yellow cards.
Simeone has 19 players available to him including B-team striker Pedro, although either he or Pizzi is expected to drop out of the final reckoning. Fran Mérida trained today, but he’ll also be unavailable because of his involvement for Braga in the group stages.
Speaking in a press conference this morning, Cholo admitted that his side were in for a tough test, but remained confident of reaching the final.
“[Valencia] are a strong opponent, they have great players and create fast goal opportunities in almost every match,” he said. “We know the game will be one in which the intensity, application, order and focus are needed.”
“When you get to these moments, every little detail is crucial. I expect a full stadium and the team to respond with a great performance.”
Eduardo Salvio was also quizzed by journalists yesterday, and seemed determined to reach his second Europa final as an Atlético player.
“We are not satisfied with reaching the semi-finals, we want to be in the final and to win,” said the Argentine international.
“We are facing one of the best teams in Spain and a European giant, but so are they against us. I think it will be a very even match, and we will have to play well to take a lead into the second leg.”
On Sunday, Atlético grinded out a valuable win at Rayo Vallecano, whereas Valencia were on the receiving end of a 4-0 thrashing at Espanyol. Earlier in the week they had convincingly beaten Rayo themselves, and also held Real Madrid in the Bernabéu.
However, disappointing results to the likes of Mallorca, Zaragoza and Getafe in the last month have seen them just begin to lose their stranglehold on automatic Champions League qualification, and also crank up the pressure on Emery.
Full-back Jordi Alba was quoted ahead of tomorrow’s clash, and insisted they were still confident despite their recent slump.
“We are motivated and ready to make a fresh start. Now is the time to show what we can do.” said the 23 year-old.
“Espanyol was an accident, but we are now 180 minutes from a final, something I and many of my team-mates have never experienced. That has to serve as a motivation for us.”
As predicted, he was also asked about the game two years ago, most notably the blatant penalty his side were not given when Nikola Žigić had his shirt ripped.
“Our fans and the players involved have still not forgotten, it was a decision that knocked us out unfairly,” he said. “We shouldn’t be looking at this as revenge, but to have a good performance and do our best.”
Many Valencia fans like to forget that Atlético were also denied a couple of penalties themselves in that game though, one of which could have gone against Alba himself, and also had a legitimate goal disallowed when Diego Forlán lobbed César.
This time round we have the task of playing the second leg away in the Mestalla, which will take place the same time next Thursday night. Before that, Espanyol come to the capital in another match that should help decide who takes that final top four spot.
Atlético match selection:
Goalkeepers: Courtois, Sergio Asenjo
Defenders: Filipe Luis, Domínguez, Perea, Miranda
Midfielders: Mario Suárez, Tiago, Salvio, Arda Turan, Assunçao, Gabi, Koke, Juanfran, Diego
Forwards: Adrián, Falcao, Pedro Martín
Valencia match selection:
Goalkeepers: Diego Alves, Guaita
Defenders: Bruno, Miguel, Víctor Ruiz, Dealbert, Rami, Ricardo Costa, Mathieu, Jordi Alba
Midfielders: Albelda, Topal, Parejo, Tino Costa, Maduro, Pablo Hernández, Feghouli, Piatti, Canales
Forwards: Jonas, Soldado, Aduriz
Referee: Craig Thomson (Scotland)