Atletico Madrid head into the first leg of their Champions League semi-final with Bayern Munich on Wednesday in confident mood after five consecutive wins.
They are grinding out crucial 1-0 victories in the League to maintain a real shot at the title and having again got the better of Barcelona in the Champions League quarter-final, there is certainly a hint of Deja-vu about this season, which is already more than a little reminiscent of their hugely successful 2013-2014 campaign.
There are subtle differences though and if anything there is more reason to believe that they are capable of toppling a side of Bayern’s class this time around. Solid defence is still the foundation of their success but the absence of Diego Godin through injury, which would have been a disaster ahead of such a key game two years ago, shouldn’t pose them as many problems now.
The impressive Jose Gimenez is capable of stepping up and leading this defence while back-up centre-backs Lucas Hernandez and Stefan Savic have proved capable deputies over the past few weeks.
In Antoine Griezmann they have a genuine match-winner and there is more pace in the team, which enables them to counter-attack more effectively. An increase in options has enabled Diego Simeone to adopt a more flexible approach of late which makes it slightly more difficult to guess how he will tackle the tie against Bayern.
Certainly his team selection at Camp Nou in the first leg of the quarter-final was one of his boldest during his five seasons in charge of Los Colchoneros. His decision to match Barca’s 4-3-3 formation with Griezmann, Yannick Carrasco and Fernando Torres in attack was threatening to pay off spectacularly before the latter’s needless sending off.
Indeed, we have seen Atleti enjoy quite a bit of success in recent months by being a bit more positive and the return to form of El Nino has contributed to Atleti scoring three or more goals in six of their last 12 games, having managed it only five times all season prior to that.
Therefore Simeone has to decide whether to stick or twist here and although Torres looks set to keep his place up front, we are likely to see a return to a more cautious approach than the one that we saw from Atleti against the Catalans and at times in La Liga over the past couple of months.
Despite leaking a few goals in this competition, against Juventus and Benfica, Bayern are better defensively than Barcelona and are the only side in Europe’s big five Leagues to have conceded fewer goals than Atleti this season. In Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Muller they have two devastating finishers who might only need one chance to score a potentially tie-changing away goal for their side.
Therefore Simeone’s primary objective in this first leg will be keeping a clean sheet, something his side are masters of doing. Anything else would be a real bonus.
Much is made of what a fortress Vicente Calderon is but Atleti are also very strong on the road and have the best away record in La Liga this term. It is far too simplistic to suggest that Atleti must win the home leg to have a chance of progressing.
Bayern’s relatively unconvincing progress in this competition up until this point and failings at this stage against Spanish opposition in each of the last two years suggests Atletico Madrid have a real chance.
A 0-0 draw or even better a 1-0 home win would allow Atleti the luxury of not having to chase the game at the Allianz Arena, the perfect set-up for a potential rear-guard action and then they may be boosted by the return of Godin. That would also allow them to consider playing an extra man in midfield while hitting the Germans on the break with the pace of Carrasco and Griezmann.