They say a year at Atlético is like ten at another club, and it doesn’t half ring true.
Four years have passed since the red and whites last played in the UEFA Champions League, but for fans, it feels like many more.
However, the wait comes to an end on Wednesday, as Russian side Zenit St. Petersburg visit the Calderón in the opening match of Group G.
Kick-off is set for the usual time in this tournament, 20:45 CET.
A last-gasp Carlos Vela goal effectively denied Atleti a place in last year’s edition of the Champions League, but after 18 months of tremendously hard work, Diego Simeone and his team finally get the chance to show what they can do on Europe’s top stage.
Despite having won five trophies since our last campaign, including the Europa League and UEFA Super Cup twice apiece, a top-four place has always been the main priority, and the team will be looking for redemption, having sold themselves short last time round.
Our last match in the competition was a, frankly, humiliating 3-0 defeat to FC Porto in the final group match of the 2009-10 season, a result, coupled with their last 16 triumph the previous year, we can finally avenge, having been paired with them again this year.
Falcao was on the score sheet that night, and his partner-in-crime Hulk also starred, finding the net himself with a pile-driver from long range.
Tomorrow, the Brazilian international is back, although this time in Zenit colours, having made a big-money move from Portugal a couple of summers back.
Our own Samba star will not be lining up against him however, Diego Costa still with two matches to serve following his dismissal in a Europa League clash last December with Viktoria Plzeň.
Again, it feels like an age ago now, but sadly Costa will not be at our disposal until Matchday 3, when we travel to Austria Wien.
Simeone confirmed in his press conference on Tuesday that Adrián López is the man chosen to take his place, in what will be the 25-year-old forward’s first start of the season.
After a rip-roaring start to life at the Calderón, last year didn’t quite go to plan for Adrián, losing his place in the line-up and only finding the net four times.
However, he has already shown what he can do, and the club have not given up hope, and it’s in Europe where he has really come to life in the red and white shirt so far.
Eighteen players make the squad, with teenage trio José Giménez, who debuted from the start in Saturday’s win over Almería, Óliver Torres, and Javi Manquillo left out of the selection. New signing Josuha Guilavogui will also have to watch from the stands, the Frenchman only training a handful of times since joining from St. Etienne.
Fellow deadline day addition Toby Alderweireld is called up though, and could make his debut if needed on the pitch. Daniel Aranzubia, Cristian Rodríguez, and João Miranda are also in, the latter likely to slot back in to the backline following a minor illness.
“As always, we go game-by-game and try to defend the shirt,” Simeone told journalists earlier this evening.
“Zenit are an important team, very experienced in this competition. They have a lot of quality players, but I will tell mine about their weak points, and we will look to exploit them,” he continued.
The 43-year-old head coach also gave a vote of confidence to Adrián, and spoke with optimism about his team’s chances this season. When asked if he had any nerves going into what is his managerial debut at this level, his response was simple.
For our opponents, five players are missing — most notably Roman Shirokov, who was withdrawn at half-time in their 2-0 weekend win against Terek Grozny. Full-backs Domenico Criscito and Aleksandr Anyukov also stay in Russia, among others.
They are armed with the formidable trio of Hulk, Andrei Arshavin, and Aleksandr Kerzhakov in attack though, and have Axel Witsel, another of their big-money buys, just behind them in midfield
With Atlético’s trademark counter-attacking style, it will be interesting to see which team, if any, take the initiative and try to dominate the match, in what could be a fascinating tactical encounter.
Luciano Spalletti is the man in charge of the Zenitchiki, and the Italian highlighted the home side’s technical quality in his press conference, perhaps suggesting he may play more on the defensive.
“Atlético have a nice style, their play perfectly reflects the character of their coach and a winning spirit,” he insisted.
“They stand out for their good control of the ball and fast pace, something we don’t see much of in Russia. They can also move from defence to attack very quickly, as seen in the Super Cup versus Barcelona.”
“I try to get my team to play offensive football but it is not always possible, as you see on the field,” he said.
Elsewhere, there will be half an eye on Austria Wien vs. Porto, the other game in Group G between our next two rivals. After the game, attention will turn back to La Liga and getting win number five, this weekend taking us to Valladolid for a late clash on Saturday night.
Atlético match selection:
Goalkeepers: Courtois, Aranzubia
Defenders: Godín, Filipe, Alderweireld, Juanfran, Insúa, Miranda
Midfielders: Mario, Tiago, Koke, Raúl García, Arda, Cristian Rodríguez, Gabi
Forwards: Adrián, David Villa, Léo Baptistão
Referee: William Collum