Tonight’s Champions League semi-final first leg at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu sees Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid facing off for a fourth consecutive year in the competition — with Real aiming to confirm their dominance in the capital and Atletico looking to finally get over the final barrier of Diego Simeone’s time in charge.
Champions League semi-final (first leg)
Real Madrid v Atletico
Tonight: Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, 7.45pm
Referee: Martin Atkinson (England)
TV: BT Sport, TV3
Bet: Real 5/6 Atletico 15/4 Draw 13/5
Madrid have beaten Atletico in dramatic circumstances in both the 2014 and 2016 Champions League finals, and also edged their 2015 quarter-final clash 1-0 on aggregate with a last-gasp Javier Hernandez goal.
Simeone’s tough and well-organised side have overcome everyone else faced during his five years in charge, with Barcelona (twice), Bayern Munich (twice), Chelsea, Juventus, and most recently Leicester among their victims.
Atletico have often had an edge in domestic ‘derbis’ — they are unbeaten at the Bernabeu in LaLiga in the last four seasons, and beat Jose Mourinho’s Blancos side in the 2013 Copa del Rey final in their own home stadium.
But in Europe the Spanish capital’s scrappier outfit have just lacked that extra edge to get over the line against their aristocratic neighbours.
The pain of losing last May’s Champions League final in Milan almost lead Simeone to leave the job in despair, and there remains a nagging doubt that on the biggest stage his team cannot match Madrid’s innate sense of superiority.
That might be why Simeone decided to change his policy and take up the opportunity for his team to train at the Bernabeu on Monday evening, and do their pre-match media duty inside their rivals’ home.
The Argentine, however, claimed to be relatively relaxed about the prospect of taking on their closest rivals yet again.
“Before every game there is the usual tension due to the responsibility we have at the club, with these fans,” Simeone told reporters.
“That keeps growing all the time, and I keep it with me whether we are playing Las Palmas, Real Madrid, or Leganes.
“Actually, sometimes before games which might seem easier in theory, I’m more nervous about getting the players to do what we want.”
Speaking at Real Madrid’s pre-game conference at their Valdebebas training ground, boss Zinedine Zidane was asked if he thought Atletico’s confidence must be low after three years of European defeats. “I do not believe so, just the opposite,” said the Frenchman.
“Whatever happened in the past is gone. It was positive for us, but this is completely different, another semi-final. We are not favourites. It is 50/50, like always in a semi-final. Each year Atletico improve.
"They always fight, battle, and know their weapons and use them in the best way. We also have our weapons. We know that small details will decide the game, and the tie.”
Zidane’s galactico-filled team are on the cusp of a first LaLiga trophy in five years, despite losing ‘El Clasico’ to Barcelona earlier this month. Zidane has rotated his team cleverly to keep superstars like Cristiano Ronaldo fresh for the final stage of the season, keeping all the squad’s egos in track as they challenge on two fronts.
Madrid’s major selection issue is who replaces the injured [again] Gareth Bale. Local pundits’ favourite Isco has been in sparkling form lately, but emerging star Marco Asensio is a more similar player and came off the bench recently when Bale was injured against both Bayern Munich and Barcelona.
If Zidane wants to surprise everyone he could drop off-form playmaker Luka Modric, and name both Isco and Asensio in his line-up.
Atletico have a serious problem at right-back, with specialists Sime Vrsaljko and Juanfran Torres injured and stand-in Jose Maria Gimenez twanging a hamstring in Saturday’s 5-0 La Liga win at Las Palmas.
Yannick Carrasco has returned to training following a recent shoulder injury, but would be a big risk to start — especially if Simeone tries something different this time and names the Belgium winger alongside Antoine Griezmann and Kevin Gameiro in a surprise attacking XI.
Navas; Carvajal, Varane, Ramos, Marcelo; Modric, Casemiro, Kroos, Isco; Ronaldo, Benzema.
Oblak; Lucas, Savic, Godin, Filipe; Koke, Gabi, Saul, Thomas; Gameiro, Griezmann.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved