Two teams and clubs heading in contrasting directions face off in Tuesday’s Champions League round-of-16 second leg at the Estadio Vicente Calderon. Host Atletico Madrid, confident in its collective strength, wants to confirm its emergence as one of Europe’s top sides; visitor AC Milan is scrabbling for some individual genius to avoid an exit and confirmation of its worst campaign in decades.
Atletico has a 1-0 advantage from the first game at Milan’s San Siro last month. That night Milan dominated possession in the opening 45 with Mario Balotelli a constant danger. But the second half saw the home side pushed back by Atletico’s better tactical and physical preparation, and Diego Costa’s late header secured a deserved away win.
That result, coupled with its resurgence in La Liga over recent weeks, makes Atletico heavy favorites to book a first Champions League quarter-final appearance in 17 years. Meanwhile seven-times European Cup winners Milan arrive in the Spanish capital sitting tenth in Serie A and needing a surprise turnaround to rescue a season already almost a total write-off.
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Atletico manager Diego Simeone nonetheless cautiously told his pre-game news conference at the Calderon that he was expecting a challenge fitting with the Italian giant’s illustrious history and big-name players.
"Milan is a very strong institution in football history, accustomed to winning in this competition," Simeone said. "Great players show up in big games, regardless of the form they might be in. Milan have great players, and we must expect them at their best."
The Argentine coach was being polite to his visitors, but the omens are also on his side. Atletico has won a European first leg away from home 19 times in history, and progressed to the next round each and every time. Milan has not won on any of its last six trips to Spain.
Milan’s Dutch boss Clarence Seedorf tried to be positive when speaking after last weekendâs 1-0 league loss at Udinese, a result that dealt another blow to his side’s hopes of playing in Europe next season.
"We are convinced that we can win at Atletico, as we can win any football match," Seedorf said. "We all saw the first-leg performance and how that could have gone for us. We said from the start this would be a long process. We certainly won’t scrap the good work done so far."
Seedorf himself at least has happy memories of the Calderon to drawn upon. The recently installed rookie coach Seedorf scored there on his debut as a player for Madrid in a 4-1 victory back in January 1997. His Brazilian creative duo Kaka and Robinho also won on every visit as Real Madrid players.
Adel Taarabt, a surprise hit from Milan since his loan move from English club Queens Park Rangers in January, has less experience on the biggest stage. But the mercurial Moroccan nonetheless talked big this week.
"I believe it should have been 2-0 to us at San Siro, but we were unlucky," Taarabt claimed. "We will not be afraid to take on Atletico. The Champions League is a different competition. We showed at San Siro we can dominate, I do not see why we cannot do that there."
Taarabt was one of the better players for his side in the first game, and should start again today, even with Robinho returning from injury. Balotelli’s shoulder problem has healed too.
Atletico also have no new injury worries, and Simeone’s only selection is really who to leave out. Spain’s record goal-scorer David Villa has been benched recently, but scored twice on Saturday as Atletico beat Celta Vigo 2-0 to jump over Barcelona into second in the Primera Division table. Brazilian playmaker Diego Ribas also staked his claim in that match, but Raul Garcia’s physical presence caused Milan trouble in the first leg. It is a good selection dilemma for the Atletico boss to have.
Costa, who has five goals in four games in his first ever Champions League campaign, is sure to start in his side’s attack. The new Spain international told UEFA.com that he was confident of overcoming Milan, and then going much further into the competition.
"You are always allowed to dream," the new Spain international said. "Hopefully we will survive this round, and from there we will look further ahead. Simeone has shown us that with work, and with fighting spirit, we can reach our objectives."
That hard-working, hard-fighting but still humble approach has worked pretty well for Atletico so far. Taarabt, Balotelli or Kaka might deliver a moment or two of individual class, but it is still difficult to imagine Simeone, Costa and company not going safely through to Europeâs final eight.