MADRID // It was a satisfied group of Atletico Madrid players who walked the dark passages from the Camp Nou’s visitors rooms to their team coach last Tuesday.
It was midnight but the hour was of no concern after they had drawn 1-1 against Barcelona in the Uefa Champions League quarter-final first leg, the fourth time the teams had clashed this season and the fourth time it had ended in stalemate.
But Atleti headed home last week with the advantage of an away goal – the finest strike seen in the competition this season, struck by their Brazilian substitute Diego from 30 metres out.
Coach Diego Simeone smiled and shook hands with media. He would not get carried away. He has been reluctant to talk of success and his policy would not change.
Another Brazilian Diego, Costa, hobbled by. He had been substituted in the 29th minute and remains a doubt for Wednesday night’s second leg at the Vicente Calderon.
Full-back Filipe Luis is a compatriot of both playing Diegos. “That was hard, intense,” he told The National. “Very difficult as you’d expect against Barcelona, but we felt that we controlled the game despite Barcelona having so much possession.
“It will be hard if we play without Diego Costa, but Diego Ribas had a great game and scored an incredible goal. I think he can be key for us. He’s worked really hard in training to be a part of the team and he is.”
Ribas was signed in January from German club Wolfsburg as Atletico sought to strengthen their squad and prevent a repeat of last year when their form faded at season’s end. As with the €2 million (Dh10.1m) signing of striker David Villa, who will start Wednesday night, the €1.3 million fee for Ribas looks inspired business from Simeone.
“Simeone changed the dynamic of the whole club when he arrived,” Luis said. “He has these small punctual conversations with the team, one-minute conversations, every two, three days to try to get into our heads, always focusing on the present, never the future, always the next game. It’s the first time in my career I’m able to see these mentality changes.”
Simeone’s side continues to improve. Predicted to fall away this season, the naysayers seemed right when they were beaten twice in February. Luis had admitted at the start of the season that they had a squad to win the league if it was 20 games, but not 38. Yet Atletico returned to winning ways, with six straight league victories and sit top with six games to play.
Luis, 28, has been one of their best performers with 39 games for his club so far this season. He is not a star name, but when Atleti slipped to their first defeat in 17 games at Almeria in February, it coincided with a rare Luis absence.
The left-back has many admirers; including Manchester United who have scouted him on several occasions. Fast enough to get quickly up and down the left side and strong enough to counter any opponent, his contract runs until 2017. For now he is only thinking of success at the club he joined from Deportivo La Coruna in 2010.
Before that he had played for Figueirense in Rio de Janeiro, switching from playmaker to left back at 17. He broke into the first team at 18 before being spotted by Ajax. The Amsterdam club “helped my game tactically, but I could have settled better. I was 19 and all I did was complain about the language, food and weather. People could see I didn’t enjoy their country.”
He didn’t play a first-team game before joining Real Madrid’s B team, Castilla. “I had a great time there, but the only problem was a lack of game time,” he said.
Luis moved to La Coruna in 2006 and, aside from a horrific leg break in 2010, saw his stock rise. Atletico paid €12 million for him and he’s been a vital factor in a side that keeps getting better.
“We’re near the end of the season and we’re top of the league and still in the Champions League,” he said. “There are only six weeks left, but they are six huge weeks.
“We dream of reaching the semi-finals and we feel we can. We have an excellent atmosphere in the dressing room and the noise will be incredible in the Calderon for the return leg.
“Our run in is really difficult and while I know it’s a cliche, we’ll take it game by game. We’ve done that all season and done well with that method. There’s no reason to change it now.”
Xavi says Barcelona are ready for return to the big stage
Barcelona captain Xavi, right, says his side “must steal the limelight” against Atletico Madrid on Wednesday night if they are to reach the Uefa Champions League semi-finals for the seventh straight season.
The two Spanish sides square off at the Vincente Calderon in the return leg with Atletico holding a slight advantage after last week’s 1-1 draw at Camp Nou.
“We must steal the limelight, dominate possession and attack them,” Xavi said. “The fact that we have to win this game will be an advantage for us.”
Marc Bartra will partner Javier Mascherano at the heart of the defence with Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol out injured.
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