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Champions League or nothing

Ahead of Saturday's Madrid derby, Atlético have another matter pending against PSV: reaching the quarterfinals of the Champions League.

Diego Simeone.

Just 48 hours after a 0-0 draw against Villarreal that saw the league title slip almost certainly from Atlético’s grasp, the side arrived in Eindhoven to be greeted by three-degree temperatures and a blanket of rain. It is colder in Holland at the moment than in Kazakhstan, where Atlético travelled during the group stage. There, the teams had the benefit of a roof on Astana Arena. On Wednesday night Diego Simeone’s side will play the first leg of their Champions League last 16 tie against the Eredivisie champions in the knowledge that reaching the quarterfinals is their only hope of putting recent league disappointment behind them and of closing ranks again ahead of Saturday’s derby against Real Madrid.

The Champions League is the club’s main objective, the dream, and an itch in desperate need of scratching. Diego Godín has often said so, as has club captain Gabi, after two minutes separated Atlético from glory and defeat in Lisbon two years ago. In Eindhoven they will go all out. It’s the Champions League or nothing. And that nothing, if it extends from now until May, will be extremely long. The bookmakers have Atlético as favourites and 0-1 as the most likely result. The level of the Eredivisie, below that of La Liga, and the way Atlético will come out of the blocks, will have influenced that forecast. But PSV, who have won their last eight league games, will not make it easy for the visitors.

There are certain elements of both sides that mirror the other: the red and white stripes firstly. PSV’s strip was born of the favoured note pad used and the raspberry lemonade drunk by one of the founders of the club, which started off a team for workers at the Philips factory. Another is the two sides’ preference for the wings and then there is Phillip Cocu and Diego Simeone, two loyal playing servants to their clubs who returned as manager to lead their clubs from the darkness to a renaissance.

Cocu has both good news and bad going into the game. The good news is that midfielder Andrés Guardado is available again after a month on the sidelines and the bad is the loss of his captain Luuk de Jong, who is suspended. That will affect the attack, but the speed of Luciano Narsingh and Jürgen Locadia and the solidity of Davy Pröpper and Jorrit Hendrix in midfield will compensate.

Simeone has been boosted by the early return to action of Augusto Fernández, who suffered a knee injury last month and who may start in the Philips Stadium. It remains to be seen if he will play José Giménez or Stefan Savic, but the front two will be composed of Luciano Vietto and Antoine Griezmann. The France striker has gone five games without a goal and there is no better stadium in the world for him to reignite: when it was built in 1913 Philips only made one thing: light bulbs.


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