A talented and tough Atletico Madrid side are sure to test Bayern Munich on Wednesday. The German champions have fallen at this stage in the last two seasons and are keen to avoid a hat-trick of last four exits.
"Atletico were the team we least wanted to play," admitted Spanish midfielder Javi Martinez at a pre-match press conference ahead of Bayern Munich's semifinal clash with Atletico Madrid. Having lost comprehensively to Real Madrid and Barcelona in the last four in 2014 and 2015 respectively, Bayern's sense of trepidation around another trip to Spain is understandable.
Described as 'monsters of passion' by Bayern's sporting director Matthias Sammer, Atletico Madrid are a profoundly different beast to Spanish football's big two. "For Atleti to keep on winning we can only do one thing - that is to work and fight," head coach Diego Simeone told radio station "Onda Cero" last year.
Atleti are a team built in the image of their fiery Argentine coach. Simeone was a combative midfielder for a host of top European sides, including Atletico, and his streetwise style has rubbed off on his team. Simeone won the UEFA Europa League in his first season in charge and the Spanish Cup a year later.
"Simeone is a wonderful coach," said the former Liverpool striker Fernando Torres. "He is the personification of the Atletico spirit. He really knows how to fire us up and how to make us believe in ourselves."
Despite his early success, it was Atletico's extraordinary 2013-14 campaign, which firmly put the club and their eccentric coach back in to the global spotlight. In their best season ever, the Spaniards lost their first Champions League final since 1974 to city rivals Real Madrid. But just two weeks earlier, Atleti had claimed their first Spanish league title in 18 years, breaking up nine years of dominance from the big two in the process.
That this was a success against the odds is largely down to the way TV money is distributed in Spain. Currently, the largest chunk of the broadcasting contract is given to powerhouses Barcelona and Real Madrid, who each collect around 140 million euros annually.
That is almost the entirety of Atletico's budget, according to the Deloitte Money League, with 42 million stemming from the TV contract last season. However, when a new broadcasting deal - aimed at providing a wider competitive balance in the league - begins from next season, Atletico will see their share increase almost threefold to 116 million a year.
They may not have the most cash but Atletico do have the strongest defense in La Liga - and by some distance. The capital city side have conceded 16 goals in 35 games, 13 fewer than Real Madrid. Their solid base is allied to a lethal counterattacking style, with the speed of Antoine Griezmann a thorn in the side of most of their opponents in the Champions League this term. Torres also appears rejuvenated after a miserable spell at Chelsea and is likely to return to the line up on Wednesday after suspension.
"They defend with aggressiveness, something we have to prepare ourselves for," noted Bayern's Thomas Müller. "This is one of the best stadiums in Europe, when it comes to atmosphere," added midfielder Thiago Alcantara.
Business as usual
Many commentators are suggesting Wednesday's match will be the defining game of Pep Guardiola's reign in Munich. The Catalan has become accustomed to lofty expectations in his time in Bavaria but this is his final shot at Europe's biggest prize with Bayern before he moves to Manchester City this summer. Despite a likely hat-trick of Bundesliga titles, some may consider his period in charge a failure if he doesn't land the Champions League. Guardiola's side stood firm when presented with very different challenges against Juventus and Benfica en route to the last four and he'll be hoping for more of the same on Wednesday.
Bayern's dominance in the Bundesliga has perhaps worked against them in the latter stage of the Champions League in recent seasons. A lack of domestic competitiveness can lead to a lack of sharpness on the big occassions, as Paris Saint-Germain found out in this year's quarterfinals.
For their part, Guardiola's side have been 14 and 17 points clear in the Bundesliga, respectively, by this stage in their last two failed attempts to reach the final. Although they are heavy favourites to reclaim the league this term, they have been pushed all the way by Borussia Dortmund, a factor which should be an advantage for them if previous trends continue.
Individual brilliance helps, too, a lesson Bayern learned through the exploits of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi last year and the year before. The German side's top scorer Robert Lewandowski has the ingenuity to make the difference, but the former Dortmund striker is acutely aware he will will face a tough task against Atletico's powerful center-backs - even if stalwart Diego Godin is expected to miss out.
"As a striker, it's a challenge to face a side that concede so few, but I'm happy to be playing against them," said the Polish striker. "We know it will be tough, but we are Bayern Munich. I hope we prepare well for it, don't make mistakes and show we want to play in the final."
Level on points with Barcelona at the top of La Liga, Atletico Madrid are as good a side as Spanish football has to offer. After dumping the Catalans out of the tournament in the quarterfinals, many have tipped Simeone's side to go all the way to the final in Milan. In order to gain an advantage in the tie, the German champions will need to find the right balance between defense and attack. The return leg will be played at the Allianz Arena on May 3.