Who: Club Atlético de Madrid, defending Spanish champions, currently third place in the Spanish first division (La Liga), finalist in last year’s Champions League.
When: Tuesday, 2:45 p.m. Eastern against Real Madrid at the Estadio Vicente Calderón.
Why: Because nobody thinks the same teams playing each other eight teams a year can be awesome. But it will be.
Any club would have trouble seeing light in the shadow of Real Madrid – the world’s biggest, most popular and most successful soccer club. Until recently, however, cross-town rival Atlético Madrid had been more than overshadowed; it’d been practically irrelevant, going 25 games without a win against the Spanish titans between 1999 and 2013. Since then, however, the Rojiblancos have taken control of the rivalry, winning six of 12 meetings while losing only three times. If it wasn’t for one memorable loss last May, little brother would already be climbing out of big bro’s shadow.
- Quick guide to Tuesday’s Champions League: Real Madrid
The last time Atlético and Real Madrid played in the Champions League was in last year’s final. Up one going into second half stoppage time, Atlético gave up an equalizer then three more goals in the 30 minutes of extra time. Starting on Tuesday, the team gets two legs in each other’s stadiums to exact its revenge, with an entire city hoping to watch the other side burn.
Most people root for the underdog and like to see the prestigious, big spenders burn. So if you’re like most people, that means you’re rooting for Atlético. If you don’t like magic or live terrified of rejection, sure, Real Madrid’s fine, too.
Why Atlético matters: For most of recorded history, if you were talking about Madrid soccer, you were talking about Real Madrid. But then Diego Simeone took over at Atleti, the club signed a bunch of really good players, and voila: it made last year’s Champions League final. Oh, and it won La Liga.
So it has this thing going right now where they’re one of the best teams in the world. That probably fits most definitions of “matters.”
The cool in Atlético: It beats Real Madrid. And it beats Barcelona. And it won La Liga.
Do we need to repeat that again? IT WON LA LIGA.
Nobody outside of Real Madrid and Barcelona win La Liga, but Atlético Madrid did just that. And it went further in the Champions League than Barcelona. And Chelsea, Bayern Munich and all but one other team in Europe. And it didn’t do so by employing that reliable “spent more than everyone” approach. Atlético doesn’t have those kind of resources.
Atlético’s just not some super club. It’s a regular, solid, above-average-sized Spanish club that plays in a intimate stadium with crazy fans, one of the best settings in Europe. But it’s certainly doesn’t have the same resources as it better-situated rival.
The big difference is Simeone, the brilliant coach who used to play for the club and looks ready to assemble an assassin’s rifle on a moment’s notice. Koke is one of the best young players in all of Europe, Arda Turan makes magic happen in attack, and the only thing better than watching former meaningful talent Fernando Torres crash and burn over the last five years would be to see him rise from the ashes back at Atlético, where his career all started. And it just might happen!
Watch this player: Antoine Griezmann is good. Like very, very good. Players who are on France’s World Cup team generally are, but there are levels to just how good he is. Less than two years since making the move from La Real Sociedad to Atlético, he’s become Simeone’s most important attacker.
Sometimes, Griezmann just holds his own. He does what he has to do as a withdrawn striker, makes the right passes, moves the ball and tries to get in front of the net for a goal or two. Other times he looks like he could be the best player in the world, dribbling past defenders, spinning them in circles, playing passes you didn’t know were possible until he hits them and crushing shots from 25 yards away that nearly light the net on fire.
On one hand, that kind of difference in play can be frustrating. Why can’t he be the mesmerizing, made-for-YouTube player French soccer fans have fawned over since before he made up with Didier Deschamps? On the other hand, not knowing what you’re going to get and hoping to have your mind blown is part of the fun. It also happens to be vital if Atlético Madrid are going to return to the semifinals.
What Atlético has to do: Griezmann needs to be very good, yes, but beyond that, they need Torres and Mario Mandzukic to finish the chances they get, because Atleti are going to defend and counter. That means they need to be efficient with their few opportunities. A sublime match from Koke or Turan wouldn’t hurt either.
But more than anything, Atlético needs to control the tempo. Real Madrid can have the ball, but the match needs to be at a crawl when they do, and Atleti need to fly on explode into counters when it’s their turn. If things speed up or slow down at the wrong times, Simeone’s team could be dead in the water.