- Atletico Madrid (1) vs AC Milan (0) 19.45, Sky Sports 1
- Bayern Munich (2) v Arsenal (0) 19.45, ITV1
Today the Champions League is all about intensity. Intensity and match tempo. Those looking at the visit of seven times European Champions AC Milan to Spain’s capital might well be tempted by the two clubs’ back stories.
The Milanese, despite their withered Serie A status, routinely seem to have what all great clubs possess – the Pavlovian ability to find something extra when the Champions League anthem sounds.
Whether that be pride, ambition, the weight of history… or fear… it’s tempting to look at a side which will contain exceptional talents like Mario Balotelli and Kaka, with jack-in-the-box options like Adel Taarabt and Robinho (pictured below with Kaka in 2010), and wonder whether, should they score early, a shock might be on the cards.
Optimism at the San Siro
This is new territory for Atletico who haven’t won a European Cup knockout tie since 1977 when they beat Nantes to reach the quarter final. Not one of Simeone’s players was born then, and the coach himself was just a kid.
Sometimes experience is everything. Sometimes greenhorns make naive mistakes at this elite level. Could this afflict Atleti?
Around the San Siro right now there is a remarkable level of optimism, irrespective of their woeful league position (closer to relegation than to the final Champions League qualification slot) and a repeated phrase that all the club, now under Clarence Seedorf, needs is one big result to kick-start a resurrection.
More, anyone who watched the first leg would be tempted to point out that Atletico survived some very, very stormy moments when they could easily have fallen behind, or lost, as Barcelona did in that stadium (2-0) last season.
The enigma Taarabt
According to Adel Taarabt, enigmatic in England, already talismanic to the Rossoneri, that’s the least that can be said.
“We should have won the first leg 3-0,” argues the on-loan QPR playmaker. “But their keeper, Courtois, is exceptional. However, if we play with the same intensity as that at the Calderon we’ll go through for sure.”
But, slam the brakes on. Those who disparage the playing tempo and rhythm of La Liga in comparison to the Barclay’s Premier League might be surprised but there is a considerable gap in the intensity with which Simeone’s Atletico play and what either Milan are capable of or Serie A provides as opposition to them.
There’s no question that a major moment from Balotelli, Kaka, Robinho or Taarabt is capable of causing Atletico damage. But could Milan really shuck off their constant debility of playing well for about an hour and then dropping in concentration, physical performance and threat?
Some tips for this game
Michael Essien (above, a winner at Chelsea), likely to be in a two-man midfield, is a case in point. Football smart and a warrior but likely to suffer, athletically, against Atletico. A possible red card chance, too.
Milan’s recent 0-2 defeat to Juve was a case in point. Impressive for about an hour, falling into a chasm for the last third. Tight marking for the bulk of the game but Fernando Llorente (very Diego Costa-like in his aerial ability) unmarked for his headed goal.
Atletico inadvertently rested key players at the weekend, losing Arda, Costa and Diego Godín to suspension. All three return refreshed. Atletico, fuelled when they tire by an extraordinary and ferocious support, play with a ferocity equal to their fans’ hunger which, to me, says this is just one more tie to add to the record that only two sides in the history of the Champions League have lost the first leg at home then progressed.
- A draw – feasible. Milan to lead first – equally possible. But Atletico to proceed and probably win 2-1. [bet here]
…and what about Arsenal
Arsenal surely face a similar predicament. Three times in less than two years the ‘invincible’ Bayern Munich have welcomed top level Premier League opposition to the Allianz – and lost all three. Chelsea in the Champions League final then Arsenal last season and Manchester City in the most recent group stage. If you ally that information to the powerful and assured start which Arsene Wenger’s side offered in the first leg before a missed penalty and a red-card neutered them then perhaps there’s a case to make, at least, for a result which either narrows the aggregate gap or takes the tie to penalties.
But there’s a reason Bayern signed Pep Guardiola (above). He repeatedly dealt with Arsenal when in charge of FC Barcelona and repeatedly came out with the same litany as yesterday: “Give them a chance and we’ll suffer.”
The charismatic Catalan knows the Gunners have the football philosophy, the talent and, potentially, the ability to control the ball and thus the game if allowed. Guardiola, however, is ferocious and will have drummed into his team that this is a match of real threat where absolute intensity of performance is required.
Tactically he reads opponents like no-one else and, moreover, he tends to have man-motivation skills (with the notable exception of Zlatan) which rank with the finest. Arsenal have an opportunity, based on recent history, but I’m willing to bet that Guardiola’s skills and preparation are able to snuff it out.