Teams cannot be picky about opposition sides in the Champions League knockout stages, but of all the sides Juventus could have been paired with, Atletico Madrid would surely have been last.
Diego Simeone’s outfit are stylistically in a similar mould to the Bianconeri. They prioritise defensive solidity and take pride in the organisation, cohesion and work-rate. Los Rojiblancos are also a side built for the rigours of cup knockout football, rather than record-setting League points total. They’ve lost just one of their opening 21 La Liga matches this season but a plethora of draws – eight so far in the League, six of which came away from home – have restricted any ambitions of a prolonged title pursuit.
Hopes were high during the summer that this could be the season when Atleti won their first League title since their memorable triumph of 2014. Diego Costa had a full preseason behind him and a variety of exciting new signings had arrived. Highly-rated holding midfielder Rodri Hernandez joined to replace outgoing club captain Gabi Fernandez, while the attacking ranks were also bolstered. Thomas Lemar arrived from Monaco in a club-record €60m deal, while Gelson Martins was bought from Sporting CP and Nikola Kalinic came in from Milan.
Atleti’s attacking play has once more been brought under the spotlight this term. Antoine Griezmann is the only player to score more than two League goals, while Costa recently broke a nine-month Liga scoring drought in November but has not featured since due to injury. Gelson started just one League match before departing for Monaco on loan, Lemar has only netted in one League game and Kalinic is now without a goal in his last eight Liga appearances. Alvaro Morata, formerly of Juve, has since been signed on a long-term loan deal from Chelsea and the debate now is whether or not he will retain his starting spot whenever Costa regains fitness.
A lack of prolific strikers will not stop Los Rojiblancos being considered a major force in Europe. In the last seven seasons, they have won two Europa League titles and twice reached the Champions League showpiece, only to lose on each occasion to Real Madrid. Indeed, somewhat incredibly, Atleti’s city rivals are the one side to defeat them in a European knockout match in the last five campaigns.
Juve’s 2015 semi-final triumph over Real Madrid was the only time a side from the Spanish capital has been defeated in a European knockout tie across the past six seasons. Interestingly, Morata was on target in both matches for the Old Lady, while Cristiano Ronaldo also found the net in each leg for Los Blancos. These two protagonists have now switched sides but, four years on, their attacking threat is likely to once again define a tie between Europe’s most defensively-disciplined sides.