“If they give us the ball, we’ll give it right back to them,” Atletico captain Gabi joked to reporters.
The remark reflected a relaxed Atletico camp, even as they prepared for a first European Cup semi-final in 40 years, while also closing in on a first La Liga crown since 1996.
But it was also a recognition that opponents Chelsea are likely to pose a different, and tougher, test than Atletico have faced so far in this season’s knockout stages. Milan and Barcelona both came out to attack, giving Diego Simeone’s coiled spring of a side space to break into.
Jose Mourinho’s Blues are unlikely to be quite so innocent. Europe has now been warned. Simeone, 43, has come to recognition as a leading coach by, in just two and a half seasons, turning a feckless and inconsistent squad into the continent’s coming team – streetsmart, tough and tactically excellent.
Mourinho, now 51, won his place at the top of the game by twice lifting the Champions League trophy with similarly scrappy and astute teams — Porto in 2004 and Inter Milan in 2010.
Relative newcomer Simeone lacks such pedigree, but Atletico midfielder Tiago (who won the Premier League title under Mourinho at Chelsea in 2004/05) sees lots of similarities between his former and current bosses.
“When you think of both you immediately see not just the figure of a coach, but of a leader,” Tiago told Monday’s El Pais.
“These are two very similar teams and two coaches who know exactly what they are playing for. Mou puts himself inside your head. Simeone instils an idea in you.”
The two coaches last met in last season’s Copa del Rey final, when Simeone’s side gatecrashed Real Madrid’s Estadio Santiago Bernabeu to win the trophy on their richer neighbours’ home turf, helping confirm the self-belief which has backboned this season’s Liga and Champions League surges. That was Simeone’s first win over Mourinho, who had won all previous eight derbies as Madrid coach, but it was clear who had won the battle of minds. Many at the Bernabeu were relieved to see the Special One move on after that game, while ‘El Cholo’ is now La Liga’s undisputed top boss.
And now it seems even his adopted homeland of England is beginning to doubt Mourinho, especially after Saturday’s shock 2-1 home defeat by Sunderland apparently ended Chelsea’s chances of winning the Premier League trophy. Mourinho took his usual approach of blaming someone else (the referees) for this setback, but the perceptive Tiago sees another reason for his countryman’s difficult reinsertion at Stamford Bridge.
“(Mourinho) has always been a very practical coach, with physically strong teams, very well organised and with rapid ‘transitions’,” he said.
“This Chelsea does not have the players for this type of game. They prefer to hold the ball, to organise attacks. Mourinho prefers rapid transitions, players who look for and attack space very quickly.”
These issues are compounded as Eden Hazard, Chelsea’s most direct attacker, will most likely miss out tonight with a calf injury.
The reshuffle required would mean one of Fernando Torres or Demba Ba starting – despite Mourinho regularly complaining that none of them meets his requirements.
Meanwhile Simeone will start 35 goal centre-forward Diego Costa, currently the best attacker of space in Europe, and who Mourinho is reported to have already secured for Chelsea next year for €60m.
Given that both teams will likely defend deep and in numbers, Costa’s contribution tonight could well tip the first leg Atletico’s way, as Gabi himself admitted on Sunday.
“Mourinho’s team are very well prepared tactically and will come to play their game,” the long serving midfielder said. “We have to counteract that with our game, and look for Diego [Costa] down the wings. The team whose plan is most successful will win.”
That prediction looks spot-on.