The M30 motorway was recently diverted right through the middle of what was once the pitch at Atletico Madrid's former home, the partially demolished Estadio Vicente Calderon.
Their new home, Estadio Metropolitano, was, of course, the final stop on Liverpool’s journey to a sixth European Cup last season, but Atletico had been the ones dreaming of lifting Ol’ Big Ears at the impressive modern arena until Juventus imposed a diversion of their own with a dramatic second-leg comeback in the last 16.
This year, the Metropolitano is a waypoint for both clubs, with Tuesday night’s first leg there going some way towards deciding whether it is Diego Simeone’s side or Jürgen Klopp’s holders who carry on along the road to the Ataturk Olympic Stadium in Istanbul, the venue for this year’s Champions League final.
La Liga runners-up in each of the last two seasons, Los Rojiblancos are currently sat fourth in the Spanish top flight, finished second behind Juventus in Champions League Group D and were eliminated from the Copa del Rey by third-tier outfit Cultural Leonesa last month.
Their outstanding record at the Metropolitano and established habit of producing on the big occasions under Simeone will make them a fearsome obstacle tomorrow evening.
“That is the thing Atletico fans are clinging to,” explains journalist Dermot Corrigan, who has spent the last decade in the Spanish capital working for The Independent and the Irish Examiner among others.
“That, under Simeone, no-one can motivate a team or set a team up to scrap and fight and ruffle feathers in big games as much as Atletico. They’ve been great at it in Champions League matches, going back to Chelsea [a semi-final in 2013-14] or Barcelona [quarter-finals in 2013-14 and 2015-16], or when Arsenal came over for the Europa League semi-final in 2018; it was 1-0 but they really steamrollered them.
“They’re hoping with their hearts more than their heads that the form book will go out the window and they can lift themselves for one big game, then head to Anfield and see what happens.”
Atletico’s squad was completely transformed last summer after the departures of elite performers Antoine Griezmann, Lucas Hernandez and Rodri plus stalwarts Diego Godin, Juanfran and Filipe Luis was followed by an influx of new faces headed up by Portuguese starlet Joao Felix. The stylistic shift signalled by those changes remains in progress, according to Corrigan.
“This year was even more of a revolution, because they had made such an effort to try to win the Champions League at their own stadium last May,” the La Liga expert continues.
“Financially they made a huge effort to keep Griezmann and hang on to ageing guys like Godin and Filipe Luis – give them one more year so that team can finally get its hands on the Champions League. When Cristiano Ronaldo intervened with that hat-trick for Juventus, it didn’t happen, and there was a real end-of-an-era feeling.
“Simeone doesn’t like the idea that they can’t play, or that he can’t coach teams that play good football, so every summer they sign creative players – going back to people like Yannick Carrasco or Thomas Lemar – who can go into the team and add a little craft on top of the ruggedness. Through the autumn they try to achieve that, but as the bigger games come around they often go back to basics and try to dig it out.”
Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone
Considering they’ve won two Europa Leagues and reached two Champions League finals under Simeone, going back to basics is not necessarily a bad thing for Atletico in a European context, especially when faced with a Liverpool side who share many of the same hard-running characteristics, as Klopp recognised when the draw was made in December.
“Different styles and slightly different organisation, of course, but both are ready for intensity and that makes it pretty tough for both,” noted the Best FIFA Men’s Coach for 2019.
Lately Atletico have been hobbled, quite literally, by an injury crisis that has taken out Kieran Trippier and almost the entire front line – Felix, Alvaro Morata and Diego Costa – with a question mark still hanging over that trio’s fitness for Tuesday evening’s game, though Morata featured for the final quarter of Friday’s 2-2 draw at Valencia.
Simeone has reacted by largely sticking with his preferred 4-4-2 formation, using midfielders Vitolo and Angel Correa as makeshift forwards.
“In the Super Copa de Espana [held in Saudi Arabia with a new four-team knockout format last month] against Barcelona they shocked everyone; Correa did really well, they went for Barça in the last 15 minutes and ripped them apart,” says Corrigan.
“They ended up knocking Barça out, which was a big deal for them and effectively got Ernesto Valverde [Barcelona coach] sacked. It shows that on those bigger occasions when it’s really on the line, Simeone still has that connection with the players and can get that bit extra out of them.
“Three at the back was another thing they thought of doing this season, to play with wing-backs, because Trippier and Renan Lodi – the other full-back they signed in the summer – are really attacking. But that experiment didn’t come off so I’d be really surprised if they don’t go four at the back, keep it tight, maybe play an extra body in midfield.
“They’ve a lot of guys who can play in different positions, that’s something Simeone is pretty good at. He will have some kind of plan to deal with Liverpool, no doubt, but it will be a defensive one.”
Atletico's Estadio Metropolitano
Kopites will relish returning to the scene of the biggest knees-up they’ve enjoyed in a generation, but the Metropolitano will be a very different place with all but 3,328 of its 68,000 seats given over to Atletico fans keen to reaffirm that it’s their home; a fortress where the 10-time champions of Spain have lost just once this season and only five times in total since its 2017 unveiling.
“I was at the Champions League final and it was such a British occasion, it was a really good atmosphere and the majority of fans on both sides had a great weekend, but this will be different,” adds Corrigan.
“They really make a good effort to get people to the stadium early, they ramp up the music, play AC/DC and Nirvana and really get people’s juices flowing. Simeone will be off his seat and geeing everyone up, he’ll be running after every ball, it wouldn’t surprise me if he went head-to-head with Klopp at some stage. He’ll do what he can to make it as gnarly as possible.
“Again, that’s what they’re clinging to, the idea they can turn it into a battle, and the fans are a big part of that. Some of the best games I’ve been to for atmosphere in Spain are Atletico ones. The Metropolitano is probably not quite as intimidating as the Calderon, but the vibe has translated pretty well considering it’s a modern stadium.”
That’s not to say that the world champions and their figurehead will be unwelcome visitors, though.
“Klopp is very popular here,” concludes Corrigan. “People like his demeanour, his enthusiasm, his energy, he will be very well received by the media and by fans as well. There’s a connection between Liverpool and Spain going back over the years to Fernando Torres, Rafael Benitez and everybody. It’s just the team that they’re frightened of!”