Atlético Madrid can reach their first Champions League quarter-final in 17 years on Tuesday evening, as they prepare to take on six time winners AC Milan in front of a packed crowd in the Spanish capital.
The red and whites won narrowly at the San Siro in the first leg to take the driving seat in this last 16 tie, although plenty of work is still to be done against one of the continent’s most decorated sides.
Kick-off in the Vicente Calderón is set for the habitual time of 20:45 CET.
A decade ago, with Milan champions of Europe and Atleti newly promoted in La Liga, you would never have believed the team from Madrid would be widely considered favourites to knock-out their illustrious Italian counterparts in Champions League knock-out tie.
However, a late Diego Costa away goal three weeks back means that is exactly the situation on Tuesday evening, and the Spanish international will be hungry for more having been shut out by Italy in his International debut recently.
Suspended for Saturday’s vital 2-0 win at Celta Vigo, Costa will return to lead the line against the Rossoneri, but competition for places behind the big frontman is really hotting up and could cause a real selection headache.
Raúl García got the nod in the San Siro and also in last week’s derby, although David Villa‘s ruthless weekend brace will make him hard to leave on the bench.
Arda Turan is available too following his ban, but will have our two January signings to contend with, Diego Ribas and José Sosa, who both looked sharp and extremely eager in Balaídos to impress and win a starting place.
Veteran midfieder Tiago, a fixture in the team up until injury last month, is also back with the squad, meaning our only injury absentee at this crucial stage in the campaign is teenage right-back Javi Manquillo.
In his press conference on Monday, Simeone highlighted the importance of the midfield battle and warned against the strengths of Milan, underlining the threat they can pose.
“For a good match, we must be strong in midfield,” he stressed. “In games as defining as these, Milan are especially dangerous. They are used to being in this competition given their history, regardless of their league position.”
“I expect the best Milan tomorrow and I’m sure it will be a hard and challenging match, the stakes are very high for either side.”
The Argentine head coach also praised his side, addressing the form of some of his attacking weapons in particular.
“The match in Vigo showed that the team is ready to tackle big matches,” he said. “What makes me very happy is Diego´s growth, the entry of Sosa and all the goals from David Villa. All this helps us grow as a team and makes us more prepared for all the important situations that will come.”
Our opponents may be out of sorts – mid-table in Serie A and 20 points away from next year’s Champions League spots – but despite everything that has gone by this season, they would still be a major scalp and have more than enough talent to continue in pursuit of their most beloved title beyond this round.
Manager Clarence Seedorf has more than enough experience having won the competition four times with three different clubs, but is still finding his feet in management having only taken over in January. The ex-Real Madrid man challenged his side to make the most of their opportunity in the Calderón.
“I expect an open match. It’s true that Atlético have the advantage, but we will seek to strengthen our attacking play and take our chances in front of goal,” he told press.
“This type of match generates much enthusiasm and we feel prepared, the team is excited and can hopefully write a new chapter in Milan’s history.”
“The important thing is to respect the rival as well as respect and honour our history. We are prepared.” he finished.
Seedorf’s men responded well initially to defeat in the first leg by winning at Sampdoria, but were since beaten comprehensively by Juventus a week later, before going down again on Saturday to a struggling Udinese.
Nevertheless, their weakened line-up suggested that eyes are firmly on tomorrow, as star man Mario Balotelli was given a run-out in the second half following injury.
The controversial striker’s return will be a huge boost to the 2,000 Milan fans supposedly making the trip, with Sulley Muntari, outspoken in his view that Atleti were the weakest side in the draw last December, also back in the squad.
Christian Abbiati will be returning to Vicente Calderón, and another familiar face, Robinho, could also play having returned to full fitness.
Captain Riccardo Montolivo is still missing through suspension though, meaning home fans will not get a chance to get a look at one of the names we seem to be linked with every transfer window.
Should the Rojiblancos make it through, the quarter-final draw takes place in Nyom on March 21st, with ties on 1/2 and 8/9 April.
Atlético match selection:
Goalkeepers: Aranzubia, Courtois
Defenders: Godín, Filipe Luís, Alderweireld, Giménez, Juanfran, Insúa, Miranda
Midfielders: Mario Suárez, Tiago, Koke, Raúl García, Arda, Cristian Rodríguez, Gabi, Diego, Sosa
Forwards: Adrián, Villa, Diego Costa
Milan match selection:
Goalkeepers: Abbiati, Amelia, Coppola
Defenders: Abate, Bonera, Constant, De Sciglio, Mexes, Rami, Zaccardo, Zapata
Midfielders: Birsa, De Jong, Emanuelson, Essien, Kakà, Muntari, Poli, Taarabt
Forwards: Balotelli, Pazzini, Robinho
Referee: Mark Clattenburg (England)