For the second straight Sunday, Atlético take their act to Valencia.
This time, the league leaders and fresh Champions League finalists will square off against Levante at the Ciutat de València at 17:00 CET–a bout that has the chance to serve as a semifinal of sorts for los Rojiblancos.
A win against their opponents on this match day would leave Atleti one victory away from lifting the Primera División trophy, with Málaga set to visit the Vicente Calderón next weekend.
On the other hand, the hosts, on the surface, have nothing but pride to play for.
But, as usual this time of year in Spain, rumours of maletines (briefcases full of cash) abound, and one can only be left to wonder how much Florentino Pérez is offering Les Granotes to spoil Atleti’s run for their first La Liga title since 1996.
“If we have to fuck up the league for them, we’ll try to do it,” Levante midfielder Rubén García brashly told reporters on Friday, before pretty much confirming suspicions of a cash incentive.
“So there will be a financial gift it seems, right?” Rubén said.
“If there is one and it’s because of a win, why not?”
Los Colchoneros come into this affair on the high of having dispatched Chelsea in London on Wednesday to qualify for their first Champions League final since 1974.
While these are fast times for our men in red and white, Levante have struggled of late–failing to win a single match in all of April, though they are virtually assured a place in Spain’s top flight next season.
The Ciutat de València hasn’t been too kind to Atlético in recent years, with the capital outfit only taking one of nine points up for grabs in their last three trips there.
“This will be a very tough game against a team that works really well defensively,” boss man Diego Simeone warned ahead of Sunday’s clash.
Atleti narrowly edged out Levante 3-2 at the Calderón with a Costa penalty right before last Christmas.
“They put together highly competitive games. It took us a lot [to beat them] in the first round. That’s why we imagine a match with these characteristics, where we’ll have to play an encounter with a great deal of intensity.
“I’m certain Levante will be a competitive side, a team that we have a lot of respect for that will demand so much from us.”
Of the reports that up to 9,000 members of the Rojiblanco faithful will accompany the team in Valencia, ‘Cholo’ said: “That would be fantastic. Hopefully the fans can understand the importance of this moment in La Liga and I invite them all to come and support us, take part and be here. Hopefully there will be a lot of Atlético Madrid fans in the stadium tomorrow.”
One Rojiblanco that won’t be in action — though he will be in attendance — is Juanfran, who was shown a straight red for a reckless challenge late into our triumph over Valencia last weekend.
Simeone is taking all 22 members of the squad on this trip, as the Argentine tactician wants the squad to be united in these crucial moments of the campaign.
Toby Alderweireld is the likely replacement for our starting right-back, though there’s a chance Simeone may go with the now recovered and lucky-to-still-be-alive Javi Manquillo.
“We’re analysing the situation,” Cholo said.
“We’ll decide tomorrow because they have different characteristics. Toby is very good at set pieces, but Manquillo is much faster and younger.”
Should Simeone go with Toby, it would be the Belgian’s first start as a fullback with Atleti–though he serves as the starting right-back for the Belgian national team.
Atlético match selection:
Goalkeepers: Aranzubia, Courtois
Defenders: Godín, Filipe Luís, Alderweireld, Manquillo, Giménez, Juanfran, Insua, Miranda
Midfielders: Mario, Tiago, Koke, Raúl (the real one, not that other guy), Arda, Cebolla, Gabi, Diego, Sosa
Forwards: Adrián, Villa, Costa
Levante match selection:
Goalkeepers: Keylor Navas, Javi Jiménez
Defenders: Navarro, Rodas, Vyntra, Juanfran, Nikos, Pedro López
Midfielders: Víctor, Rubén, Xumetra, Sergio, Ivanschitz, Sissoko, Diop, Simao
Forwards: Barral, Ángel