Saturday 21 April 2018

Simeone's soldiers prepared for war

Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone in pensive mood during yesterday's press conference (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone in pensive mood during yesterday's press conference (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)

Jason Burt

As feels right at this stage of the Champions League, there are many intertwined stories and plotlines, so much resonance and meaning, so much history and significance in Atletico Madrid's semi-final meeting with Bayern Munich.

But it also pares down, as great sport often does, to two men; two great coaches; two mesmeric personalities: Atletico's Diego Simeone and Pep Guardiola, of Bayern.

This is 'Cholo' against 'Pep'; the yin and the yang of the modern-game whose styles contrast as ideologically sharply as their suits and their well-groomed looks.

The great destroyer against the great creator; both obsessive in their attention to detail and yet able to surf a tide of intense emotion; both knowing exactly what they want and demanding that they get it; Both 45 - born just nine months apart, with Guardiola the elder - and at the height of their powers.

So typically there was a golden quote delivered on the eve of this match which summed up everything that is at stake.

"Bayern have great players," Simeone said, the last to speak in pre-match press conferences also involving Guardiola, Xabi Alonso, Philipp Lahm, Gabi and Fernando Torres. "But in battles, the sides with the most soldiers do not win, but those who use their soldiers better."


It was delivered with a grin but there was edge in it that seemed to encapsulate his approach.

Atletico and Simeone are heavy-duty operators; tough customers who have accomplished, as Guardiola acknowledged, a feat worthy of any trophy.

"The best trophy Atletico have achieved, with Diego Simeone and his staff, is that they are now equals to Barcelona and Real Madrid," Guardiola said, with Atletico having knocked out his former club in the quarter-finals and currently tying with them on points at the top of a thrilling La Liga title race.

"For three or four years, they have been fighting for the league and in Europe and thus you have to do almost everything very well against them. We've seen them and now we'll have to see what we can do to hurt them."

There is pressure on Atletico having lost the final two years ago to Real Madrid.

There is an even deeper significance with this being the first meeting of the two clubs since the infamous 1974 European Cup final, a demon from Atletico's past, when they were leading Bayern in the last minute of extra-time before goalkeeper Miguel Reina - Pepe's father - was beaten from 30 yards to earn a replay that was lost 4-0.

Atletico had to wait another 40 years to reach the final again. Again they lost.

And yet. And yet all the real pressure, the genuine, cloying pressure is firmly on Manchester City-bound Guardiola.

"In three years we've got to three semi-finals," he said. "I know that people say that if I don't win the Champions League my work won't be complete. But I've been very lucky to have experienced what I have in Germany. I think I'm a better coach, a better guy, more relaxed."

That may be so. But in the past three years - once with Barcelona, twice with Bayern - Guardiola has fallen short at this stage. And he inherited a Bayern side who were the Champions League holders.

"Pep's ahead of his time," Alonso said. "Guardiola has defined a philosophy and laid foundations that will help Bayern in the future."

But for all the brilliant football, the organisation and ideology, the Bayern coach needs to emulate Jupp Heynckes and bring home, again, the trophy with the big ears, as Jose Mourinho calls it.

First he has to get past Simeone, who has emerged as a Mourinho for the next generation in the way that he has developed and rebranded a particular kind of defensive but ruthlessly winning football.

It was also Mourinho-esque to have an extra ball thrown on the pitch during a recent league game, when Simeone's team was on the back foot, earning a touchline ban.


That gave Guardiola the chance to shift some of the focus to the referee - a certain Mark Clattenburg.

"We're here for a game of football and not to worry about things we can't control," he said. "That's a question for the referee."

Simeone was emphatic that his team's approach in the home leg first would be to win.

"The trick is to think about how you can win," he said, although his first concern will be to stop free-scoring Bayern from scoring.

When asked if he had anything else nefarious up his sleeve, he said: "We are prepared to live with what is coming. We want to use this chance and we will fight."

No one would expect anything less - especially at the Vicente Calderon Stadium, where the Rojiblanco have lost only twice in 29 games in all competitions this season.

Atletico's fierce defensive system has conceded only five goals in this Champions League campaign and a miserly 26 in 51 matches in all competitions.

Meanwhile, Bayern arrived in the Spanish capital with 28 goals from 10 games - the most among all teams this season. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Atletico Madrid (probable)- Oblak; Juanfran, Gimenez, Hernandez, Filipe Luis; Saul, Koke, Gabi, Carrasco; Griezmann, Torres.

Bayern Munich (probable) - Neuer; Lahm, Martinez, Alaba, Bernat; Vidal; Costa, Muller, Thiago, Ribery; Lewandowski.

Ref - M Clattenburg (England)

Atletico Madrid v Bayern Munich, Live, RTE 2/BT Sport Europe, 7.45pm

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