After its winter hibernation, Thursday brings the return of the Europa League to the Spanish capital, with Atleti looking to defend the title they’ve won twice in the last three years.
First up on the Road to Amsterdam is Russian outfit Rubin Kazan, who will be looking to do what no team has done this season and get some kind of result in the Vicente Calderón.
Kick-off is scheduled for 21:05 CET.
Given the great success we’ve had in the Europa League in recent years, you can be sure the team will give the tournament ultimate respect, especially now that we’ve reached the knock-out stages.
However, for the first time this season, we will see a full strength team take to the field, with the likes of Arda Turan, Radamel Falcao and Diego Godín all set to make their first European apperances since the Super Cup win.
Last year, we won every game we played under Simeone on the way to beating Athletic Bilbao in the final and setting a new continental record, but the run ended in this year’s group stage, despite our ‘B’ team still managing to qualify comfortably.
It seems now though, with a healthy points total having been amassed, there will be less focus on the league and more on the competitions, with important players having been rested in recent defeats to Athletic and Rayo.
The squad for tomorrow is near it’s strongest and there are no injury worries, but, perhaps crucially, Diego Costa will serve the first of a four game ban that stretches from last December. In defeat to Viktoria Plzeň, the Brazilian’s temper overboiled late on and he saw straight red for a rash headbutt.
This does open the door again for Adrián though, one of the heroes in our 2012 triumph. The Asturian has under-performed on the whole this year, but will get chances to prove the doubters wrong in his favoured competition.
On that note it’s also worth mentioning, for the second time, that Falcao is also in line for his season debut against Rubin, having top scored in the Europa League two year’s running. With Napoli’s Edinson Cavani already on 7 goals he has some work to do to defend his crown, but we wouldn’t put it past him.
Youngsters Javi Manquillo and Saúl Ñíguez are in the squad, but Jorge Pulido and Domingo Cisma miss out. Óliver Torres is ineligible, as is new singing Emiliano Insúa, as he has already featured this season for old club Sporting.
In his press conference, Cholo addressed the issue of squad usage, and re-iterated just how difficult it is to successfully compete on three different fronts.
“Competing in League, Cup and UEFA Europa League, makes it a very long season,” he told the local media. “Physically the team is responding well. I repeat the game away cost us more but we are in very good condition physically.”
“From now on we will face a lot of game and I hope to have everyone available and physically well. Hopefully we can have some rotation to remain as competitive as we have been since the championship started in all three competitions.”
As usual, the Argentine tactician spoke about the opposition and remained wary and respectful, also making clear that he had the team fully prepared.
“We have seen videos. They play very well, they try to play the ball around,” he said.
“Widemen like Ansaldi can can play in different positions, strikers like Rondon, Eremenko or whoever the coach picks, will make it a very difficult game tomorrow.”
Also speaking earlier in the week was back-up goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo, who will reportedly get the nod, not just tomorrow but in the rest of the Europa League games this season.
Having played all six of the group games, MARCA ran a story Wednesday saying that Simeone has confidence in his number two choice, and will let him take this tournament with Courtois reserved for league and cup.
The 23-year-old sounded ready to seize his opportunity in a Tuesday press conference, he another who has had his doubters in his time with the Rojiblancos.
“I am proud of what I have done,” he said. “The work and the daily struggle goes with me, it is my way of being and when I may have opportunities like in the Europa League, it’s up to me to take advantage of them.”
Switching attention to Rubin, the main thing to note is that because of the Russian league calendar, they have been out of competitive action for over two months now.
Their season ended in December, but they have been keeping busy with a series of friendly matches since then. Results haven’t been the best though, beaten 1-0 respectively against Rapid Bucharest, CFR Cluj and Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk in the past two weeks.
Transfer-wise they have also been active, most notably signing French midfielder Yann M’Vila from Rennes last month. The youngster, who took on Atleti in this tournament last season, is an injury doubt for both ties though.
Also in their ranks is the Spanish trio of César Navas, Pablo Orbaiz and Ivan Marcano, all of whom ex-La Liga players who will be familiar with the task at hand.
The prize for whoever goes through is a last 16 encounter with either Levante or Olympiacos, although that will be settled in next week’s return leg in Russia, moved from Kazan to Moscow due to extreme weather conditions.
Atlético match selection:
Goalkeepers: Asenjo, Courtois
Defenders: Godín, Filipe, Cata Díaz, Juanfran, Miranda, Manquillo
Midfielders: Mario, Tiago, Koke, Raúl García, Arda, Cristian Rodríguez, Gabi, Saúl
Forwards: Adrián, Falcao