The first month and a half of the season has come and gone and Atlético de Madrid supporters are in the strange situation of not remembering what other seasons’ beginnings were like for roughly the past two decades (quick reminder: gloomy and depressing). With most hopes blown before the first two months would go by, usually Atlético would be struggling at this point of the season, talking about sacking coaches, about not living up to its history, about underperforming players or about how close the bottom of the table looked. Atleti is now a solid and fearsome side both in the domestic (17 undefeated matches that trail back to April 2011) and European competitions (current record setting run of 14 straight wins) . The defending champion is second in La Liga for the first time in 15 years and faces Viktoria Plzeň today as group leader, after their 0-3 away win at Tel Aviv. On the other side of the coin, we have a humble opponent, fairly unexperienced in European competitions, who are seeking a decent match (which is a euphemistic way of saying they only wish not to be hammered at the Vicente Calderón).
Viktoria Plzeň has undergone six name changes and was called Skoda Plzen until 1993. Viktoria is in fact, the original name of the club, founded in 1911, until the beginning of the 1950s. The Czech domestic competition, called Gambrinus Liga, has seen Viktoria relegated three times in the last 20 years, though the last three seasons have been the best in Plzeň’s history.
Viktoria are in the midst of their golden years. They won the 2010 Czech Cup which gave them access to the Europa League for the first time in their history. The 2010-2011 season was their all time best. Gambrinus Liga Champions and SuperCup runners-up, which gave them access to the Champions-League for the first time in their history. Last season they lost their Champions League tie to Besiktas in the 3rd qualifying round. Last season also brought their third domestic trophy in 3 years: the Czech Supercup. Their European season was their longest ever, managing to win three qualifying ties and making it into a very demanding group in the group stage with Bate, Barcelona and AC Milan. They ended third in the group stage knocking Bate Borisov out and qualifying for EL round of last 32 where they lost to Raul’s Schalke 04.
A strong contender in their domestic championship this year, they have won 4 matches and drawn only one which have them as Gambrinus Liga co-leaders.
The Czech FC Viktoria Plzeň visit Spain for the second year in a row in their short history of European competitions appearances. In their last Spanish tie they were smashed by FC Barcelona in the Champions League with an aggregate 6-0 win to the catalan side (2-0 and 0-4). Therefore they have yet to score a goal against a Spanish side. The Plzeň side won their first group stage match versus Académica Coimbra with a 3-1 comeback in their first Europa League match and trail Atlético in the group stage.
It is very hard to know who will be playing a leading role for Atlético as Simeone is using the group stage as a testing ground to give competition minutes to the second line of less frequent starters. Raúl García and Diego Costa are appearing more and more in the starting eleven. Simeone has also talked about regretting not being able to give Emre the playing minutes he deserves, so he should also get the nod. No risks are being taken with injured players like Falcao, Tiago or Arda Turán who will probably not even be on the squad list. Juanfran, Filipe, Miranda, and Mario will also be saved for the crucial Sunday Liga match against direct rivals Malaga.
It is also another great chance for most of the defensive players who don’t usually get a chance to start, especially for Asenjo who will be playing his third match in goal this season. He needs to start regaining the support of the fans. Raúl García is the example to follow in how to turn fans’ boos into cheers as he was named man of the match last Sunday against Espanyol.
Czech right back Limberský stated earlier that “Atlético are one of the 10 best teams in the world” (actually ninth according to the latest UEFA ranking). Comparing the rojiblancos to Barcelona who they faced last year he said “Barcelona control the ball better, but Atlético have the defining edge.” About being over-defensive, the Czech defense said “We can’t go to such a prestigious venue as the Vicente Calderón to play bad football. We’re an offensive side and will try to play as we always do.”
Expect a similar starting eleven to the one seen at Tel Aviv by the rojiblancos. Asenjo, Cisma, Cata, Godín, Kader, Gabi, Koke, Raul García, Emre, Diego Costa and Adrián will most probably be the players on the pitch tonight at 9:05 pm CET. Besides recently capped for Tunisia, Kader, other canterano players will get some minutes. Fans would specially like to see Saúl Ñiguez, Manquillo or Pedro getting some playing minutes, if the score is positive for Atlético. As stated previously Simeone unexpectedly refused to disclose the player list for tomorrow’s match until the day of the match. The underlying message is that he wants the ranks alert and ready to play. In this “no fixed starting eleven” mode, Simeone has successfully instilled in his players that every single team player feels they have a chance as to start.
On the Czech side a starting eleven is easier to forecast. The starting eleven lined up against Academica: Kozáčik (GK), Procházka, Řezník, Čišovský, Limberský, Rajtoral, Horváth, Hanousek, Darida, Bakoš, Hora is the most used set of players by coach Pavel Vrba. Duris could start in place of Bakoš though both are recovering from injuries. They will go for a 4-5-1 formation with Duris or Bakoš (the team top scorers) as a sole striker.
If all goes well defensively and the midfield works as well as in Tel Aviv, we should expect a 2-0 or 3-0 win. Viktoria is in theory the weakest team in the group. They struggled to qualify for the group stage and should pose no threat to Atlético. That said, things are just rolling too smoothly for unaccustomed hearts like ours to believe all can remain as placid as a Sunday stroll. That said, Atletico fans could get used to this.
The resting factor
Will the resting factor have the same soothing effect it had at Sevilla (Betis) and Tel Aviv (Hapoel) with many key players resting and the second line doing the dirty work for them in a stylish way? Let’s hope so. Having team depth is what Atlético has lacked in previous seasons and this could be the missing piece to place the colchoneros in the fight for Champions League spots or higher.
The second line has so far not let Simeone down, both times he has massively counted on non frequent starters to save the day. Diego Costa, Raúl García and others not only were up to the challenge, but shined and picked up honorary man-of-the-match recognition from fans. These fans are in a bit of shock. They cannot believe how players considered unfit for the stripes are turning into lifesavers and valuable players for the team. Simeone’s touch is affecting the whole dressing room and all the players feel important which in turn has finally made Atleti important in La Liga. So important we could become leaders of the pack by Sunday night. But that is a story for another day.
Pictures courtesy of www.clubatleticodemadrid.com and www.uefa.com