Tomorrow’s the day we’ve all been waiting for/dreading - Arsenal welcome Atletico Madrid to the Emirates for leg one of the Europa League semi-finals. In advance of that, I talked with Jeremy Beren of SBN’s Atletico blog, Into the Calderon, and asked him about this tie. He asked me some questions too, and you can find those answers right here.
TSF: From the outside, Atletico Madrid looks like easily the strongest team left in this competition. If they had one exploitable weakness, what would that be?
JB: Contrary to what many believe, Atlético are softer defensively than they once were. Jan Oblak’s emergence as Europe’s top goalkeeper has kept the goals conceded ledger tidy, but this is a team that can be caught out with speedy, intelligent counterattacking play. In the low block against a team that loves to have the ball, Atlético are as stingy as ever. But they also have a midfield that doesn’t keep the ball all that well, combined with a defense that is stuck between the future and the past.
TSF: Despite all the talk of Atletico being really good, they are actually on a bit of a cold streak right now, with only one win in the last five games. Is there a particular reason for the recent bad stretch, or is it just one of those things?
JB: Atlético do enter this match on a spiral of sorts, and a lot of that can be blamed on injuries. Diego Simeone might have just 14 senior players available for Thursday’s match. Juanfran and Diego Costa have hamstring problems (although there is a sneaking suspicion the latter may play a part in the first leg). Influential left back Filipe Luis is out with a broken leg. Plus, I’ve gotten a sense that fatigue is setting in after a long season with a pretty small squad —the club had to make sales following Champions League group stage elimination.
TSF: Which is more important to Atletico: Cementing second place in the league or winning the Europa League?
JB: Good question. I’m of the belief that both are important and can be achieved — finishing above Real Madrid for the second time in five years would mean so much symbolically. But Europa League represents tangible silverware, which Atlético hasn’t won since 2014. I think Simeone values the Europa League more because of that.
TSF: For Arsenal fans who don’t regularly watch La Liga, who is Atletico’s biggest threat?
JB: That would be Antoine Griezmann. He is Atlético’s talisman, their superstar, their Lionel Messi in terms of role and influence. At his best, Griezmann is as much a threat to craft big chances as he is to get them himself — and since the turn of the year he has been in electric form, with 19 goals and six assists since Jan. 3. Without Costa, he hasn’t been nearly as effective, but he is *the* guy. Watch for Saúl Ñíguez, too — the 23-year-old midfielder is a box-to-box threat and has a knack for scoring in big games.
TSF: What do Atletico need to do to advance to the final?
JB: Get Costa back for the second leg. Injuries have disrupted the Spain international’s idyllic return to Madrid, but as you know, he loves a goal against the Gunners and Atlético’s best moments this season have come when he is at his beastly best. Without him, that energy isn’t there, Griezmann is forced to play less like a trequartista and more like a #9 himself, and Atlético’s attack becomes very disconnected. I am not nearly as confident in Atleti progressing if Costa isn’t back or isn’t himself for at least 90 minutes out of 180.
TSF: Fill in the blank: For Arsenal to beat Atletico over two legs, they must (blank)
JB: Be willing to defend on the counterattack and take chances when they come. The bigger the occasion, the more eager Simeone’s men are to give up possession and form that low block. On nights like this, Atlético will look to reduce the match to three or four big chances, and whoever converts will walk away with the advantage in the tie. Over two legs, assuming Arsenal will have most of the ball, they must beat Oblak when the opportunities present themselves. But one way Arsenal can open things up is if they are willing to cede possession and use their attacking talent to test an Atleti defense that isn’t quite as fearsome as in years past.
TSF: What’s your score prediction?
JB: I’m feeling 1-1 in the first leg and a 2-0 Atlético win in Madrid next week.
Thanks again to Jeremy and Into the Calderon for taking time to chat!