Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 19 October 2019

Atletico ready for Champions League battle with Juve and old nemesis Cristiano Ronaldo

Home supporters, and visitors from Turin both carry into Atletico Madrid versus Juventus lingering thoughts that 2019 was the final their clubs let slip away

Three-and-half-months after Madrid’s Metropolitano stadium staged its first Champions League final, a moment for 60,000-odd regrets around a packed arena tonight.

Home supporters, and visitors from Turin both carry into Atletico Madrid versus Juventus lingering thoughts that 2019 was the final their clubs let slip away.

For Atletico, permanent tenants of the Metropolitano, the frustration is felt most keenly. Never was their optimism greater of reaching a final on their own ground than at 2-0 up, halfway through last season’s first knockout round. Atletico had just scored two late goals to beat Juventus. At that moment, they believed, raucously, in their destiny.

Had Atletico held that lead over the next 90 minutes of the tie, then … well, a quarter-final against Ajax would have awaited, then a semi-final against Tottenham Hotspur. And who knows? Atletico would have started either of those match-ups as narrow favourites. But the 2018-19 Champions League turned out to be a box of thrilling surprises, the first when Juventus scored three times to upend the last 16-tie against Atletico, another when Juve lost to Ajax in the quarter-finals.

The effects of those topsy-turvy nights ricocheted hard around both Atletico and Juventus.

Not long after a Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick had sealed Juventus’s comeback to 3-2 on aggregate against Atletico, Juve told Max Allegri, the manager with an impeccable Serie A record of five successive league titles and two European Cup finals, that his five-year term was probably nearing its end, Maurizio Sarri lined up to replace him.

Atletico, deprived by Ronaldo of their dream home final, promptly went out and made a radical purchase, a teenager, Joao Felix, with less than a full senior season on his resumé and, at €126m (Dh509.7m), the summer’s most expensive transfer.

For Joao Felix, who made a single appearance last season for Benfica in the Champions League group phase, this evening looks a daunting start to his European adventure with Atletico.

Not only because his Portuguese compatriot and idol, Ronaldo, will be sharing the pitch but because comparison will also be drawn with a close contemporary, asked to marshall his movements.

Juventus’s Matthijs de Ligt is only three months older than Joao Felix, a €70m-plus defender eager to replicate his commanding displays for Ajax last season.

De Ligt has had a rocky start in Serie A and Juventus, under Sarri, dropped points at the weekend, drawing at Fiorentina. They conceded three goals at home to Napoli in their previous outing, De Ligt’s debut.

Atletico have not been acting in character either. They have let in four in their last two, including Saturday’s 2-0 defeat at Real Sociedad. “We need to get better and to grow,” said Simeone. “We have young players who need to step up, and that’s why we are suffering these blows. But we know who we are and where we’re trying to get to.”

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A leaky Atletico is not one that sits easily with Simeone. His Atletico, finalists in 2014 and 2016, Europa League winners in 2012 and 2018, made themselves a force in these competitions on the back of a resolute defensive record.

The club’s roll of honour might be longer but for one individual: Ronaldo. Their nemesis was on the winning Real Madrid team in the two Champions finals they lost, and his hat-trick for Juve last March felt like a deja vu, eerily reminiscent of the three goals he scored against Atletico to win the semi-final for Real in 2017.

Among those assigned to shepherd Ronaldo on Wednesday are, at right-back, Kieran Trippier, who took part in the final at the Metropolitano for Spurs in June and whose move appears to be working well for player and a team keen to make use of his set-piece expertise. And Jose Maria Gimenez, the Uruguayan central defender and now senior protector of Atletico’s backline with Diego Godin no longer at the club.

“Juventus hurt us last year with crosses, they get a lot of big men into the box,” said Gimenez, “but our experience from last year will help us.” For Trippier, “it’s not just about Ronaldo, there are ten other quality players there. But Ronaldo’s record is there to see. He’s one of the greatest ever. And you want to play against the best in the world.“

Updated: September 18, 2019 11:16 AM

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