Atletico Madrid’s creaking Estadio Vicente Calderon Stadium was not a ground any opponent fancied visiting, especially on big Champions League nights when the old concrete bowl literally shook with emotion and noise.
Atletico lost just one of the 23 European games they played at the Calderon under Simeone, conceding just six goals in total across all that time. Barcelona [twice], Bayern Munich [twice], Juventus and AC Milan are among the opponents swept away by Diego Simeone’s men there in recent years, while Real Madrid were also beaten there 4-0 in a La Liga game not so long ago.
However, the good news for Arsenal ahead of tonight’s Europa League semi-final second leg is Atletico left their home of four decades last summer for the much less intimidating Wanda Metropolitano.
Atletico’s first Champions League game at their shiny new home was a 1-2 defeat to Chelsea last September, when Simeone’s men inexplicably gave up a very soft injury-time winner. Next was a 1-1 draw against Azeri outsiders Qarabag, which basically exited the 2014 and 2016 UCL finalists from the competition.
The stadium move was long planned, with now deceased former club president Jesus Gil y Gil first floating the idea in the late 1980s.
Recent years saw the club, now run by his son Miguel Angel Gil Marin, do a deal with the local council to redevelop the city’s former La Peineta athletics stadium into a modern 67,000-seater ground.
The location of the new stadium is a big issue. The Calderon was right in the heart of old Madrid, down by the river Manzanares in a working-class district where many fans lived within walking distance, and where everyone enjoyed the atmosphere both before and after games.
“The fans do not feel at home yet at the Wanda,” local pundit and Diego Costa biographer Fran Guillen told the Irish Examiner. “There is a lot of nostalgia for the Vicente Calderon, which is not just a stadium, but a special site, which was in an area of the city which is very ‘colchonero’. The fans do not just miss the ground throbbing during the 90 minutes, but also the special pre-game atmosphere around the area.”
Located far out by the city’s ring-road and airport, the Wanda’s still half-finished surroundings will probably surprise Arsenal’s 3,000 visiting fans. The club have tried to generate atmosphere outside with food trucks and DJs, but the artificial mood is not to everyone’s taste. Emilo Abejon of fans’ lobby group Senales de Humo [Smoke Signals] likens the situation to Arsenal’s move from Highbury to the Emirates.
“The stadium is a bit like Arsenal’s; more comfortable for the fan who comes to enjoy their pipas and popcorn; for the tourists, there is more space,” says Abejon, a long-time critic of the Gil family. “But the pitch is much further away and the sound is disappointing.”
It has not all been bad. Atletico remain unbeaten at home in La Liga all season, and have won 10 of their last 11 games in competitions at the Wanda, keeping a clean sheet in all 11. Given Arsenal’s awful record on the road in 2018, that record in itself looks quite intimidating, but the ‘Colchonero’ faithful are still waiting for a first big magical night at their new home.
“It has been pretty quiet,” says lifelong Atletico fan and now El Mundo writer Inako Diaz Guerra. “Just a few moments against Real Madrid [0-0 in November] recalled the Calderon. Arsenal can be relaxed in this sense; if the return was at the Calderon, they would find a much more heated atmosphere. Now, they will find a lovely stadium, but more like the Camp Nou or the Bernabeu, it only really pushes now and then.”
Simeone and his team have been trying their best to heat the atmosphere ahead of tonight’s return.
“I hope the fans blow up the Wanda Metropolitano, that it explodes,” the Argentine said last week still buzzing after being sent off in the first leg.
However, Diaz Guerra says Arsene Wenger and his team should worry more about how they will manage against the likes of Antoine Griezmann.
“Arsenal will not find anything they have not seen before. Their legs will not be shaking, but they will find a different Atletico side, much more attacking and with 11 players. Their problems will be on the pitch, not in the stands.”
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