For years, Atlético watched on as Real Madrid and Barcelona battled for the top positions in Spain and Europe. This season however, things have changed.
They’re the top two in La Liga with a last day showdown still to come next month, contested the Super Cup back in August, and now los Rojiblancos and los Blaugrana are preparing to face each other in a Champions League clash that could go a long way towards deciding who comes out on top between the two this year.
Kick-off in the Camp Nou for tomorrow’s first leg is set for 20:45 CET.
So far, Atlético have shown they can juggle the pressures of competing both domestically and in European competition, and are leading the way in what many are calling the most exciting title race in years in Spain’s top tier.
On Saturday, they consolidated their place at the top of the Primera División with a crucial win at Athletic Bilbao, and come into the tie knowing that whatever happens, their rivals will still be playing catch-up to them come the weekend.
Having not reached this stage of the competition in some 17 years though, Diego Simeone and his team will be desperate for success in the Champions League as well, and are no underdogs against the four-time winners.
Crucial matches are coming thick and fast as we reach the business end of the campaign, there is no time for rest and any let-ups will be gladly taken advantage of by our fellow competitors.
With that in mind, the biggest news from the travelling camp ahead of the first leg are the sudden fitness doubts surrounding top scorer Diego Costa, who was forced to withdraw from Monday’s training session with knee discomfort.
The Spanish international is in red-hot form right now and would be a huge blow, especially as attacking partner Raúl García will also certainly miss out due to suspension.
In his press conference at the Camp Nou, Simeone spoke about the physical condition of his star centre-forward.
“Seeing how he left training, for me it’s hard to see [Costa] play tomorrow,” said the Argentine.
“We’re going to wait and see how things progress, as there is still a lot of time between now and kick-off. I’ll decide at midday.”
Cholo also addressed questions on the game, paying tribute to compatriot Tata Martino and analysing where it could be won and lost for his side.
“There will be an Argentine coach in the semis and that’s good for Argentine football,” he said. “Tata has adapted very well, [Barça] won the Supercopa are in the cup final, fighting for the title and Champions League. Both of our personalities and the essence of our nation is what we transmit.”
“We’ve played Barça three times this year but this will be the most difficult of the lot. In the first game we were the home side and in the third, Messi was recovering from injury.”
“Now they are in their best shape of the season, and will want to finish the tie here.”
Apart from Raúl García, the only first-team play for Atleti who did not make the trip was teenage full-back Javier Manquillo, still recovering from injury.
On the opposing side, 22 players make Martino’s call as his team – as most likely planned – come into a physical peak to coincide with the season’s climax.
Jonathan Dos Santos, Isaac Cuenca and most notably, Víctor Valdés are on their list of long term absentees, although the rest of the squad, including the returning Alex Song and captain Carles Puyol, have been called up.
Many were billing the clash as Diego Costa vs. Messi, although the chances could be we only see the latter, now looking back to his best following injury over the winter.
Back in January, the Argentine superstar came off the bench to little affect in a goalless league stalemate, but has re-discovered his scoring form since then with a stunning 17 goals in his last 12 matches.
“Having Messi from the start will make a great difference,” Martino told local press. “We have to win and not concede any goals, that’s obvious when there’s a return leg. Our job is to win as then the pressure will be on our opponents.”
“Atlético have been doing great things this year, as well as last. They are fighting in two competitions and in our three games against them so far, they have proved to be very tough opponents.”
“I expect a similar game to the Clásico last week, although we can’t go out there and play a wild game. We need to keep some order.” he concluded.
Following the final whistle, Atleti will return to the capital and switch attention back to La Liga and the visit of Villarreal, before the second leg in the Vicente Calderón next Wednesday evening.
Atlético match selection
Goalkeepers: Courtois, Aranzubia
Defenders: Godín, Filipe, Alderweireld, Giménez, Juanfran, Miranda, Insúa
Midfielders: Mario Suárez, Tiago, Koke, Gabi, Arda, Cristian Rodríguez, Diego, Sosa
Forwards: Adrián, Villa, Diego Costa
Barcelona match selection
Goalkeepers: Pinto, Oier
Defenders: Montoya, Piqué, Puyol, Bartra, Jordi Alba, Adriano, Dani Alves
Midfielders: Cesc, Xavi, Iniesta, Alexis, Mascherano, Busquets, Song, Afellay, Sergi Roberto
Forwards: Pedro, Messi, Neymar, Tello
Referee: Felix Brych (Germany)