The Champions League will witness an early clash of heavyweights on Wednesday when Bayern Munich and Atlético Madrid square off in a rematch of last season’s semifinals. Both clubs enter the match with three points already under their belts and look likely to cruise through to the competition's last 16, but first place in the group still represents a significant enticement.
And for Bayern Munich there is the added motivation of a chance for revenge. Five months ago it was Atlético that came out on top by the narrowest of margins after Antoine Griezmann’s goal in Munich secured victory and a place in a final that would bring heartbreak against neighbors Real Madrid.
It might have been so different for Bayern, which put Atlético under enormous pressure in the second leg and missed a penalty through Thomas Müller that would have put the German champions 2-0 in front. Instead, the curtain would come down on Pep Guardiola’s three years in charge with a third successive Champions League semi-final exit.
It means Tuesday’s rematch at the Vicente Calderon will provide new manager Carlo Ancelotti with a chance to get a big win under his belt early in his reign. So far the Italian, who guided Real Madrid to victory over Atlético in the 2014 Champions League final, could not have done more in Bavaria. He has won all eight matches in charge, guiding Bayern to the top of the Bundesliga and a 5-0 destruction of Rostov in their opening match of the Champions League two weeks ago.
One of only two managers to win the European Cup on three occasions, it is clear that Ancelotti is expected to deliver Bayern the trophy for a sixth time.
For Atlético, the hunt goes on to become champions of Europe for the first time. And last season’s penalty shootout defeat to its city rival was just the latest in a growing line of heartbreaking near-misses. As well as an extra-time loss to Madrid in 2014, 40 years earlier it was Bayern who inflicted the pain when scoring a last-gasp equalizer to force a replay that the German giants won at a canter.
Manager Diego Simeone was so crestfallen by the defeat in May that he suggested he was ready to walk away from Atlético. But fresh investment in the team helped convince him to stay, even if his contract has been cut short by two years to tie him down only until 2018.
The most high-profile new arrival, Kevin Gameiro, made a struggling start to his Atlético career, with the striker’s difficulties contributing to Atlético being held to draws against newly promoted opponents in its first two matches.
But a return to elite form for Antoine Griezmann has sparked the team into life. Atlético has failed to win just once in its last five matches and that was in a 1-1 draw at Spanish champions Barcelona. Included in that run was a 1-0 win at PSV Eindhoven that appears to have set up Group D as a two-way battle for top spot and, on paper, a more favorable draw in the first knockout round.
Prediction: Injuries to midfielder Augusto Fernandez and defender Jose Gimenez on Sunday represent a major blow to Atlético ahead of the visit of Bayern. The duo’s absence certainly restricts the options at Simeone’s disposal, even if the starting XI will remain very strong. Atlético had to be at its best to get past Bayern last season and it may struggle to replicate that level on Tuesday, with Bayern looking good to come away from the Spanish capital with at least a point.
Predicted Score: Atlético Madrid 1-1 Bayern Munich