Second in La Liga, reigning champions and bookmakers’ favourites to win the Europa League, Atlético Madrid’s hopes of success in the competition they’ve won twice in the last three years hang on by a thread going into Thursday’s clash with Rubin Kazan.
Last week, the Russians became the first team to get out of the Vicente Calderón alive so far this season, pulling off an improbable 2-0 away win with just 10 men on the field for over half the match.
Now, Diego Simeone’s young looking team have to show character and try and overturn the deficit, in a game moved from Kazan to Moscow’s 78,000 seater Luzhniki Stadium due to extreme weather conditions.
Kick-off in the Russian capital is set for 18:00 CET.
Having failed at the final hurdle last year to qualify for the Champions League, it looked as if Atlético would have to ‘settle’ for another adventure in it’s sister tournament, the Europa League, this season.
Now though, even that may be out of reach given last week’s Valentines day horror show, which not only ended our home record but also saw Rubin become the first team to beat Simeone in a knock-out game since he took charge.
Fans hoping for a heroic comeback may be underwhelmed too, with the travelling squad suggesting that the team’s priorities lie elsewhere now.
Falcao is included and will most likely lead the line, but most of the starting team have been left in Madrid, including Juanfran, Godín, Filipe, Gabi, Tiago, Koke, Arda and the suspended Diego Costa.
New signing Emiliano Insúa is also cup-tied, so still won’t get the chance to debut in red and white nearly a month after his winter move from Sporting Lisbon.
However, this has opened the door for various youth players, with no less than seven from our B and C teams given the call from El Cholo.
Most will be familiar with Saúl Ñíguez, Javi Manquillo and Kader Oueslati from Atleti B, and they are joined by Momar Ndoye and Borja Galán from the reserves, the latter involved for the first time with the full squad.
In addition to those, teenage duo Iván Calero and Fallou Gallas from Atleti C make the trip too, both teammates of Borja in our Under-18’s title-winning side last season.
For those wondering, only players registered with UEFA are eligible so we won’t be seeing Óliver Torres, but more background on the seven who are involved can be found here.
With a difficult game against a rejuvenated Espanyol side coming up at the weekend, it seems that no risks will be taken given the enormous trip, but the team have been training on artificial pitches all week in preparation, and we can still expect to see them do everything they can to progress.
A man never to back down, Simeone echoed those thoughts in his press conference on Wednesday, but acknowledged it would be difficult given the circumstances.
“We know it will be very difficult, but we understand that the tie is over two matches and will go out and fight until the last minute,” he said.
When asked about his decision to name a weakened squad, Cholo defended himself and maintained that they had enough quality to make a game of it.
“My idea was to bring a competitive team with players who are able to score goals, for example Saúl, Raúl García, Cebolla, Adrián or Falcao, and a full-back such as Manquillo who has more attacking characteristic than defensive,” he insisted.
“Falcao especially has huge desire to play, which is great for us.”
The Colombian striker accompanied his boss when speaking with the local media, and he too appeared upbeat despite the glaring disadvantage.
“We know the situation, but we have come to play a tie and not one game. We will fight until we have possibilities.” he stated.
Our number nine also shrugged off suggestions that the cold would have an affect on the team, with temperatures as low as -12° predicted tomorrow evening.
“The conditions are difficult, but when you enter the field, the desire to win is greater than the circumstances that can arise in a football match. I came here twice with Porto and played here without any problems, so we can only focus on what happens on the pitch.”
Rubin, on the other hand, are taking nothing for granted, and their Spanish influenced team will not be letting their guard down come kick-off. Having taken on the Colchoneros many times with Athletic and Osasuna, midfielder Pablo Orbaiz knows better than most the threat posed.
“The tie is still open,” he said. “It will be a tough and complicated game and Atletico still have a chance, they are a very strong team. They’ve always been a big club, but before they had more ups and downs. Now they are in good form.”
Levante will most likely await the winner in the last 32, having beaten Olympiacos 3-0 in the first leg a week ago.
Atlético match selection:
Goalkeepers: Asenjo, Courtois
Defenders: Pulido, Cisma, Cata Díaz, Miranda, Manquillo, Gallas
Midfielders: Mario, Raúl García, Cristian Rodríguez, Saúl, Kader, Calero
Forwards: Adrián, Falcao, Borja Galán, Ndoye