After blunting the attacking brilliance of Barcelona, Atlético Madrid must now get the better of the coach who did so much to return the glory days to the Camp Nou and who has embodied possession-based, attacking play more than any other in the modern era. A Champions League semifinal contest between Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid and Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich offers up a delicious contrast in approaches and one that is unlikely to faze the side form the Spanish capital.
When Guardiola returned to Barcelona as coach in 2008, his great success was in restoring and perfecting the club’s core philosophy. And the same was true when Simeone came back to Atlético Madrid as a manager in 2011.
Yet, while Guardiola had something of a base to work on at Barcelona, with a team that had won the Champions League two years earlier and a supreme youth system, Simone inherited a club that had become a laughing stock.
As a player, Simeone was an inspirational part of the team that led Atlético to their first La Liga title in 19 years. But in the time since that triumph, the club had fallen deep into the shadow of Real Madrid. Their plight was symbolized by the fact that when Simeone took the reins it had already been over a decade since their last win over their city rivals.
The former Argentina international knew Atlético were never going to be able to compete on a level playing field with Real Madrid and Barcelona in terms of talent—the huge disparity in income between the clubs ensured to that. The way to counter the two giants of Spain was by being smarter and hungrier, utilizing the underdog spirit inherent in a club that shares a city with the ultimate establishment outfit. It is a concept that has powered the team to phenomenal success.
Although Atlético’s signings, particularly last summer, suggested an evolution to a more expansive approach, ultra-committed, and shrewd, resistance is still the aspect of the game Atlético do better than any other team. In the 13 matches played against Real Madrid since ending their long losing streak against their neighbors in the 2013 Copa del Rey final, Atlético have lost just four times, and two were in the same Copa del Rey tie when Atlético’s thoughts were elsewhere. Meanwhile, in the 2013-2014 season Atlético went unbeaten in six matches against Barcelona, which helped them to sensationally win La Liga and reach the Champions League final.
Atlético’s recent record against Barcelona has been less impressive, but they again came up with a victory on the big occasion this week, winning 2-0 in the second leg of their Champions League quarterfinal. Having knocked off the holders, Simeone and his players will not be awed by attempting to stop the team that has replaced Barcelona as favorites to hold the trophy aloft in Milan at the end of May.
There is no doubt that the pressure going into the tie is all on Bayern. And there is a particular burden on Guardiola, who must prevail if he is to avoid his Champions League record at Bayern concluding with three straight semifinal exits.
It is also an opportunity for the Catalan to correct the perception some still hold that his incredible success early in his managerial career was welded to one club and one philosophy. Those questions should already have been answered by the fact that Bayern are on course to win a third successive Bundesliga title under his leadership, and have done it in scintillating fashion. Along the way there have also been some truly supreme performances, including a 7-1 win over Roma and 3-1 victory at Manchester City in the Champions League.
Guardiola has also demonstrated he has far more in his locker than just “tiki-taka,” a term he perhaps unsurprisingly detests. Bayern are now a team capable of going more direct and getting early balls into the box from out wide, utilizing the physical attributes of Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Müller, who between them have struck 64 goals this season. After seeing off Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar, the Bayern duo now awaits.
Guardiola shares one big similarity with Simeone, in the complete commitment he requires from his players at all times. At their core, though, they have flourished with two diametrically opposed philosophies, something which makes their semifinal meeting such an enticing prospect.
Prediction: Atlético are certainly capable of upsetting the odds once again and reaching a second final in three years. They will likely adopt similar tactics, too, mixing up pressing with sitting back but always looking to threaten on the counter attack. And Bayern can be vulnerable on the break, especially if Jerome Boateng does not return from injury in time.
However, Atlético could find Bayern a more difficult side to shut down than Barcelona. While Barcelona are heavily reliant on their forward trio, who were well below their best in the second leg, Bayern combine a large selection of world-class, if not true superstar, forwards, into a more structured, and variable, tactical approach. Bayern are capable of hurting Atlético in many ways. They can have the slow buildup through the center, but, with Douglas Costa, Franck Ribery, Kingsley Coman and, if fit, Arjen Robben, they also carry a massive threat out wide. The presence of Arturo Vidal could also be pivotal, giving Bayern a player capable of mixing it physically with Atlético’s midfielders. It will be tight and fascinating, but, helped by having the second leg at home, this should be the year that Guardiola takes Bayern to the final.
Winner: Bayern Munich
Atlético Madrid vs Bayern Munich schedule
First leg: April 27 (Vicente Calderon, Madrid)
Second leg: May 3 (Allianz Arena, Munich)