Having suffered defeat last time out in the Champions League at home to Benfica, three points are a necessity for Atlético Madrid against newcomers Astana on Wednesday night.
The Kazakh side are enjoying life so far on Europe’s top table, and will not want to return home from their 7,000 mile round trip to the Spanish capital empty handed.
Kick-off in the Vicente Calderón is set for 20:45 CET.
On the back of three disappointing results before the international break, Atleti returned to winning ways on Sunday as goals from Antoine Griezmann and Yannick Carrasco earned a 2-0 success at Real Sociedad.
The red and whites are now back to within two points of the early pace setters in La Liga, but have work to do in Europe as Benfica took control of Group C with a 2-1 win in Madrid three weeks ago.
That result cranks up the pressure ahead of tomorrow night’s meeting with Astana, who make the journey in contrasting circumstances, safe in the knowledge that they can enjoy the occasion and savour the moment on the big stage.
Something of an unknown quantity, our opponents became the first team ever from Kazakhstan to reach the Champions League group stage back in August, coming through the qualifiers having won their domestic league in 2014-15.
Diego Simeone has named the exact same 18 that did the job for him in San Sebastián at the weekend, meaning that again there is no place for Jesús Gámez, Thomas Partey or Lucas Hernández in the squad.
Luciano Vietto is also still sidelined as he recovers from appendix surgery, and with Jackson Martínez and Ángel Correa both quiet against La Real, the attacking spots are open after Fernando Torres and Yannick Carrasco impressed from the bench.
In his press conference, Cholo spoke about the current state of his team and how they are growing into the unit he wants, praising his players but also underlining the fact that they are still to reach their optimum level.
“I’m happy with the team,” he said. “Criticism helps you to grow, and we are trying to improve.”
“Given what we’re doing at the moment, I wouldn’t like it if a club like Atlético didn’t have the obligation to improve. The team is one of the best in Europe, so this is normal.”
The Argentine boss – who was nominated for FIFA’s Coach of the Year award on Tuesday – also analysed the prospect of Astana, who have surprisingly left a number of their regulars at home for the match.
“I’ve seen Astana a few times, and they left a good feeling in the games against Benfica and Galatasaray. Whichever team plays will be compact and intense, but we our mainly worried about our own selection.”
“The Ballon d’Or? “My nomination is thanks to the players, the team and the coaches as without them we wouldn’t be able to play this way. I find it unjust that Griezmann and Godín weren’t included in the list.”
We doubt many will be familiar with Astana, and given that they only formed six years ago, their links to Spanish football are few and far between. They do however have a link with Real Sociedad, which was established back in 2013.
According to AS, manager Stanimir Stoilov has opted to bring a squad made up mainly of substitutes to Madrid, as he wants to be fresh for their league clash against Kairat Almaty on Sunday.
The Blue and Whites trained with just 17 players in the Calderón this evening, two of whom from their Youth League squad. However, Stoiliv insisted to press that his team will be “no weaker” than the one he usually fields.
In the group’s other game, Benfica travel to Istanbul to face Galatasaray, with both teams needing the points for different reasons. Should the home side get the win, it could blow the door wide open at the top depending on Atleti’s result.
In just two weeks it will be our turn to visit Kazakhstan for the reverse fixture, so getting the win tomorrow would give us an important cushion ahead of the gruelling transcontinental trip.
Atlético match selection
Goalkeepers: Moyá, Oblak
Defenders: Godín, Filipe Luis, Siqueira, Savic, Juanfran, Giménez
Midfielders: Tiago, Koke, Óliver, Gabi, Saúl, Carrasco
Forwards: Griezmann, Torres, Jackson, Correa
Referee: Aleksei Kulbakov (Belarus)