Juventus seek Ajax-like comeback - but Diego Simeone's Atletico Madrid are made of sterner stuff
Last week's Uefa Champions League last-16 games saw two remarkable fightbacks - Juve need one themselves but face a team known for their defensive resilience
Twelve matches into the Uefa Champions League knockouts, there is a spirit of rebellion.
The complaints and indignation about the role of VAR, introduced to club football’s leading tournament as of this year, were to be anticipated. The defiant comebacks, and against-the-odds turnarounds, have been a greater, and more exhilarating surprise.
They might just inspire some more, as well. In Turin on Tuesday, both Juventus and Atletico Madrid, finalists four times between them in the last five European Cup seasons, will studiously try to harness the evidence of momentous nights in Paris and Madrid last week to stimulate belief in the power of strong wills to influence matches and challenge expectations.
If Ajax can wallop Real Madrid in their own home, as they did seven days ago, then surely a more rugged and experienced side like Atletico can weather an evening in the fortress that is the Juventus stadium, or so Atletico will reason?
If Manchester United can overturn a 2-0 deficit against Paris Saint-Germain - so Juve will be thinking - then the Italian champions, with their more glittering array of stars, can do the same?
These are proud clubs, stocked with worldly, stubborn professionals, more than entitled to regard themselves as tougher than the current Real Madrid team or than a PSG who have become habitually flaky in Europe.
Most of all, Atletico will back themselves to defend a lead, which stands at a handsome 2-0 after a gripping first leg in Spain. Atletico have not conceded a goal in Europe for well over 500 minutes. They have not conceded two goals in a Champions League fixture since September 2017, 12 matches ago. They have kept clean sheets in their last five fixtures, across competitions.
And they have Diego Simeone, the manager, roaring them on and brandishing his long-time fame as the nemesis of Juventus. It was clear how much the first-leg victory meant to him when he mimed an act of brandishing something else, rather crudely, as he celebrated on the touchline two weeks ago.
Simeone, master of cagey containment in high-pressure contests, enjoyed the ambush of Juve at the Metropolitano for all sorts of reasons: for the fact Atletico pressed on for late goals after the deflating ruling out of an Alvaro Morata strike by VAR, and after an Antoine Griezmann shot had come back off the Juventus crossbar.
He enjoyed the fact that two central defenders, Diego Godin and Jose Maria Gimenez, seizing on the disorder created in the Juventus defence by set-piece crosses, scored the goals.
Simeone sensed the echoes in that from his own playing career, as did Juventus’s executives, not least Pavel Nedved, the former Juve player and now vice-president, watching from the VIP seats.
Nedved and Simeone were once part of the same Lazio midfield, where they cultivated Simeone’s skill at making late runs into the opposition box, often at set-pieces, often with devastating effect, and more than once at Juventus’s expense.
As a player, Simeone twice scored the winning goal in such scenarios in the epic 1999-2000 season against Juve - to settle a Cup quarter-final; and in a 1-0 away victory in the league. Lazio went on to triumph in both competitions that season, upsetting an established hierarchy that had Juventus at the top.
Simeone’s reception at the Juventus stadium will be no less hostile than it used to be when he played at the old Stadio delle Alpi in the colours of Lazio or, in another phase of his career, for Internazionale.
As a footballer he thrived in Italy’s combative, tactically rigorous environment; as a manager he acknowledges he inherited much of his outlook from the Italian game.
Atletico will set themselves up to defend deep, to disrupt, and keep alive the threat of an away goal that would set Juventus a towering target.
“When they slow the tempo down they force you to make mistakes,” observed Massimiliano Allegri, the Juventus head coach, who must plan an improbable comeback without the suspended Alex Sandro at left-back and the injured Sami Khedira, Mattia De Sciglio, Juan Cuadrado and Andrea Barzagli.
Allegri took the precaution of resting five senior men from the starting line-up in the 4-1 win over Udinese at the weekend, and keeping Cristiano Ronaldo free of action entirely.
Atletico have some important absences too, Diego Costa and Thomas Partey suspended thanks to yellow cards in the fiery first leg, and the two senior left-backs, Lucas Hernandez and Felipe Luis, injured.
Godin is looking to shake off a thigh problem, though if there is any player Simeone would back to grit his teeth and make it through the medical tests it is his iron-clad captain.
Published: March 12, 2019 08:33 AM